Slough House by Mick Herron

I can’t quite begin to do justice to how excited I was to get my mitts on this latest instalment in the superbly caustic Jackson Lamb spy-thriller series.  Its timely arrival has played merry-hell with my TBR though … but it was too good to wait in line.

Herron’s glorious creation propels the story to the bitter end where the non-stop barrage of jokes is fatally undercut by a final shocking twist.’
Evening Standard

what it says on the cover …

A year after a calamitous blunder by the Russian secret service left a British citizen dead from novichok poisoning, Diana Taverner is on the warpath. What seems a gutless response from the government has pushed the Service’s First Desk into mounting her own counter-offensive – but she’s had to make a deal with the devil first. And given that the devil in question is arch-manipulator Peter Judd, she could be about to lose control of everything she’s fought for.

Meanwhile, still reeling from recent losses, the slow horses are worried they’ve been pushed further into the cold. Slough House has been wiped from Service records, and fatal accidents keep happening. No wonder Jackson Lamb’s crew are feeling paranoid. But have they actually been targeted?

With a new populist movement taking a grip on London’s streets, and the old order ensuring that everything’s for sale to the highest bidder, the world’s an uncomfortable place for those deemed surplus to requirements. The wise move would be to find a safe place and wait for the troubles to pass.

But the slow horses aren’t famed for making wise decisions.

Slough House by Mick Herron

PUBLISHED: February 2021
SHELF: contemporary fiction | fantasy
AUTHOR: Mick Herron
PUBLISHER: John Murray Press
FORMATS: Hardback | Kindle | Audiobook

She’s heard of a department made up of failures: losers assigned to a dead-end desk, spending the rest of forever in a mist of thwarted ambition.’

my review

Jackson Lamb is a deeply distasteful character.  And yet the moment I opened the cover (or should I say door?) of Slough House I more or less galloped up those familiar death-trap stairs into London’s most soul destroying office with something that could be likened to sheer joy. You’ve been gone too long Lamb. Your abusive, repellant presence has been sorely missed by this morally-compromised fan.

Slough House is the seventh Jackson Lamb book. I really cannot recommend these hugely enjoyable spy-thrillers highly enough … and I unequivocally believe this isn’t a series to start anywhere other than the very beginning.  There’s a LOT of history here, and the characters’ backstories make up important elements of this latest instalment.  So … be patient … go back to where it all began (in the pages of Slow Horses) and I promise you’ll be so caught up in this whip-sharp story that you’ll find yourself cracking the spine of Slough House in no time at all.

an interlude

If you’re not familiar with Nick Merron’s satirical secret service novels, here’s a nutshell summary that you should know before you read on …

There’s a broken-down, health hazard of an office on Alderstgate Street that’s a little-known outpost of MI5.  It’s where the ridiculed ‘slow horses’ are posted, to see-out their spy days in the most interminably soul-destroying way.  To all intents and purposes they’re under the stewardship of Jackson Lamb but in fact they’re lambs to his slaughterhouse, and he’s in no rush to end their suffering.  Don’t go thinking this is horrifically grim though … his torture is of the morale-busting kind, and I promise you’ll be unable to stop your laughs from happening out loud.  I promise! 

This office is called Slough House and it’s where spies who have disgraced themselves or – distinctly worse – shed too much light on the secret service’s murkier undertakings, are sent to rot or resign.  The headoffice thinking is that firing these unfortunates would become an expensive HR minefield, and so handing them over to the the chain-smoking, chain-farting Jackson Lamb, seems a sure-fire way to expedite resignation.

The team are an eclectic bunch, muddling through each day in their own damaged way whilst drawing upon one or more of the restorative qualities of alcohol, class As, simmering rage, and abject denial.  Over the course of the preceding six books, a few of the team have been rushed off their mortal coils, when the crew decided to re-engage active service … of the distinctly unauthorised variety. At this point in time, Lamb’s slow horses consist of:

🔎 River Cartwright – grandson to an MI5 legend, raised on spy stories, dropped like a hot potato
🔎 Louisa Guy – the second most stable member of the team
🔎 Roddy Ho – self-proclaimed chick magnet and gift to the spy world … with a hilariously overinflated sense of his own omnipotent prowess
🔎 Shirley Dander – aesthetically likened to a concrete bollard with an attitude, her default setting is ‘fury’, and her best friend is a snortable bag of white powder
🔎 Lech Wicinski – newest member of the team whose penchant for home baking is at odds with his horrifically hasthtag-scarred face
🔎 Catherine Standish – Slough House’s matronly administrator; an ex alcoholic with the patience of a thousand saints
🔎 Sid Baker – she/her.  Ex slow horse, shot in the head a few books back. Presumed dead

And then there’s Jackson Lamb! Where to start?  Well, if you’re of a sensitive nature, even vaguely ‘woke’, or a paragon political correctness, then this is the point at which you probably want to take your leave.  This cold-war relic will seriously ruffle your feathers.

Okay, if you’re still with me then I’m guessing you liked what you read so far, and are as ready as me to move on to my review of this particular book.  In we go …

Slough House welcomes its readers back into Brexit-smeared London, with the Salisbury poisonings serving as malingering source of shame to Britain’s security services.  MI5’s ‘first desk’, the indomitable Diana Taverner isn’t known for letting bygones live up to their idiom, but with bean-counters and bureaucrats working tirelessly to thwart her fighting spirit, the unthinkable suddenly became appealing.  From within the bastion, hitherto Russian-proof, concrete and digital firewalls of Regent’s Park (affectionally coined The Park to insiders), Diana orchestrates an expensive, off-the-books retaliatory hit in Kazan.  The book reluctantly joins Diana at a bombastically pompous, self-congratulatory dinner arranged by slimy ex-politico Peter Judd … and it’s no coincidence that they’re sharing their table with Judd’s latest BFF, Damian Cantor; influential online news tycoon, and the richest man in the country under thirty-five.

With Judd on a king-making mission, and Diana beginning to regret her decision to sell her shadow to the devil, it’s only a matter of time before Jackson Lamb gets a whiff of something familiarly Cold-War ish.  And when his slow horses start noticing they’ve acquired new, three-dimensional shadows, Lamb does what Lamb does best … farts and lights up the next knock-off fag.   In keeping with the six preceding books, this is the point at which the slow horses bring their own, bruising form of spy craft and justice to the streets of London … with the occasional sojourn to the leafy suburbs of Kent where a recently murdered slow horse finds herself at the wrong end of a gun, again.  But whilst The Park and Slough House both aspire to the same restorative outcome, they set about it in their own signature styles:  Diana through calculated manoeuvres, and Lamb through blunt force trauma.  Whilst they’re on wildly divergent paths, they’re inevitably headed for a catastrophic collision.

For all its sardonic repartee and acerbic humour, Slough House is not flippant, comedic spy novel.  Far from it.  It’s shrewd, compelling and acutely pitched; narrated by a borderline-bitchy raconteur with a singular talent for encouraging the reader to reconsider current affairs and social tenor.  The fast-paced plot twists and turns, and then turns again, with a satisfying amount of intricacy and a few helpful self defence techniques thrown in for good measure. Whilst the fate of one character – left shackled to the floorboards of a recently vacated shop – chimes with a deliciously rich clang of comeuppance, it’s the superbly precipitous cliff hanger that really hammers-home the author’s prowess for savvy, suspense.    

If you’re a fan of Gene Hunt (Life On Mars / Ashes To Ashes television series), then Jackson Lamb is your new politically incorrect antihero.  He’s a legend to the spy world and firm favourite of my bookish cravings.   Oh, and if you weren’t already eyeing our political leadership through the career-ending / soft-focus (depending on your channel choice) lens of British media, then Slough House will undoubtedly encourage you to do so with a whole new air of enlightened cynicism.

my rating

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Thank you to the publishers, John Murray Press and #NetGalley for granting me this advance copy of Slough House in return for an honest review.

mick herron

Mick Herron’s six Slough House novels have been shortlisted for eight CWA Daggers, winning twice, and shortlisted for the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year three times. The first, Slow Horses, was picked as one of the best twenty spy novels of all time by the Daily Telegraph, while the most recent, Joe Country, was a Sunday Times top ten bestseller. Mick Herron was born in Newcastle upon Tyne, and now lives in Oxford. 

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4 thoughts on “Slough House by Mick Herron

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