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8 June 2022

The secret world of Mick Herron

How the author of Slow Horses and Bad Actors became the foremost living spy novelist in the English language.

By John Gray

“The wind, with its hands in its pockets, whistles a tune as it wanders down the road – a jaunty melody, at odds with its surroundings – and the theme is picked up by everything that passes, until all of Aldersgate, in the London borough of Finsbury, has joined in. The result tends towards the percussive. A bottle in the gutter rocks back and forth, cha-chink cha-chunk, while a pair of polystyrene cartons, one nestled in the other’s embrace, whisper like a brush on a snare drum way up on the pedestrian bridge. A more strident beat is provided by the tin sign fixed to the nearest lamppost, which warns dogs not to foul the pavement, a message it reinforces with a rhythmic rattle, while in the Barbican flower beds – which are largely bricked-in collections of dried-up earth – pebbles rock and stones roll. By the entrance to the Tube there’s a parcel of newspapers, bound by plastic strips, whose pages gasp and sigh in choral contentment. Dustbins and drainpipes, litter and leaves: the wind’s conviction that everything is its instrument is justified tonight.”

Few would identify this passage as the first paragraph in a spy novel, Mick Herron’s Bad Actors. The rolling cadences convey a strong sense of place, a scene of desolation brought to life with Dickensian whimsy. A key character is being introduced: London features in Herron’s Slough House series as more than the backdrop against which the action is staged. The metropolis is an active presence in the lives of the “slow horses”, cast-off spooks exiled to scruffy and at times malodorous offices at the dingy building in the Barbican known as Slough House. Stranded in this limbo as a result of botched operations or the opaque machinations of office politics, they occupy themselves with drudge work and dreams of returning to the glittering MI5 HQ in Regent’s Park. Habituated to a draining sense of disappointment, oscillating between loneliness and fugitive relationships, they struggle to understand how they came to be living the lives they do. Meanwhile, the city around them burbles on regardless.

So far, so realistic. Aside from their secretive trade, the denizens of Slough House are not so different from many other people. But Herron is in the business of world-making, and the centre of Slough House is its founder and boss Jackson Lamb, a character fast acquiring mythical status. Large, unkempt and ostentatiously flatulent, incessantly smoking and drinking, his pungent office littered with the ancient remains of takeaway meals and the occasional decayed tooth, Lamb presides over his troupe of losers with brutal jocularity and mocking contempt.

In a curious way, Lamb is also a Dickensian creation. True, Mr Pickwick is not portrayed as persistently farting, still less as revelling in the habit. But like many of Dickens’s characters Lamb is a weirdly comedic invention, composed from a repertoire of inimitable mannerisms and a mysterious inner life. The semi-magical appearance of cigarettes and lighters from bottomless pockets and the almost imperceptible steps with which this bulky figure flits up the stairs to his office tell us nothing of what may lie within.

Slow Horses is a consummately well written, produced and acted series on Apple TV based on the first of what are now eight novels set in Slough House. (There are also three novellas, and two other novels that are not part of the series but are set in the same fictional world. Herron has also published a four-volume series featuring  Zoë Boehm, an Oxford-based private detective.) If Jackson Lamb is the centre of Herron’s imagined world of Slough House, Gary Oldman is Lamb’s definitive embodiment. Surpassing his magisterial and chilling performance as George Smiley in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011), Oldman emanates the practised imperturbability of someone who has seen and done it all. Somewhere under the skin there may be calloused scars from losses of colleagues and agents – even friends, when Lamb still had them – in disastrous operations in Cold War Berlin. Lamb’s sneering yet faintly afflicted voice echoes through the show like the jaunty and plaintive zither music in The Third Man.

[See also: The prose style of John le Carré]

The challenge of the television series, as of the Slough House books, is rendering a make-believe world credible enough to be engaging. Inspired casting enables the TV version to grip and hold the viewer’s attention. Kristin Scott Thomas as the glacially calculating Diana Taverner, deputy director of operations at Regent’s Park, Jack Lowden as a bitter and reckless Regent’s Park reject, Saskia Reeves as the feisty and lovable recovering alcoholic Catherine Standish, and Samuel West as the shady right-wing nationalist MP Peter Judd are standouts in a consistently accomplished ensemble. The plot, which turns on the kidnapping of a Pakistani comedian by a far-right terrorist group that plans to behead him on camera, keeps the viewer on tenterhooks throughout.

In both the TV series, based on the first of the novels, Slow Horses (2010), and Herron’s new novel Bad Actors, the action takes place in a fictional world which has been constructed to mimic one that actually exists. Bad Actors tells of the apparent disappearance of “super-forecaster” Dr Sophie Greer, protégée of Anthony Sparrow – a special adviser to the prime minister, prolific blogger and ruthless disrupter of institutions he judges to be set in their ways. Sparrow attempts to use the disappearance to take control of MI5 and make it a tool of the government – in practice, himself. The events that follow include Diana Taverner being forced to go on the run and making a late-night visit to the repellent Peter Judd. As in all the novels the action is interspersed with passages of lyrical scene-building; the dialogue is riveting, and often laugh-out-loud funny. With this multi-layered tour de force, Herron has consolidated his place as the foremost living practitioner of spy fiction in the English language.

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Inevitably, Herron’s world illustrates the unreality that pervades the genre when it claims to be situated in the present. It is hard to imagine anyone with the habits and abusive behaviour of Jackson Lamb lasting long in any part of the intelligence services today. The era in which MI5 could contain a section founded and led by an eccentric figure such as Maxwell Knight (1887-1968) – according to some accounts, one of the inspirations of Ian Fleming’s “M” – is long gone. An ardent naturalist who published a memoir of his pet cuckoo and a practical manual called How To Keep a Gorilla, Knight did not hesitate to burgle homes and offices without authority. Even in the interwar years, when Knight was a spymaster, this was unusual; nowadays it is almost unimaginable. The British security services are branches of the Civil Service, and resemble the rest of the machine in being governed by rules, regulations and committees. The system is designed to secure an internal transparency that precludes unlicensed covert operations and anything like the clandestine meetings between Taverner and Judd that Herron describes. 

[See also: Big Time by Angel Olsen review: a sensitive record about grief, loss and coming out]

An element of fantasy may be inherent in contemporary spy fiction. Committee meetings of desk workers who rarely encounter the subjects of their investigations are not easily turned into the stuff of adventure. But Bad Actors is also a political thriller, and Herron adds to the fantastical flavour of the story he tells with his cartoonish depiction of the politicians and henchmen who feature in it. Invariably on the Brexiteer right, they are drawn as gloating villains who cynically manipulate the credulous masses. Herron has often been described as the Le Carré of our time. The equation is misleading: Herron is in every respect a better writer. But one of the genuine parallels between the two is that the “bad actors” in their work are always of the kind that stalk the imagination of left-liberals and would-be patrician Tories. The underlying premise is that if it could somehow be rid of vulgar corporate greed and scheming populists, all would be well with the world.

Human events are more complicated than that. As Bryan Appleyard notes in the epigraph Herron has chosen for the novel, “People deceived by bad actors do wicked things for good reasons.” This is notably true of bad actors themselves. Not many politicians are knowing cynics like Judd. Most are led into their crimes and follies by ambition and self-deception.

Because of the falsehoods he propagated in the course of the Iraq War, Tony Blair came to be seen as a liar. It would be more accurate to say that he identified truth with his own messianic delusions. David Cameron was at his most dangerous not when indolent greed led him into unwise business relationships, but when he surrendered to the heroic self-image expressed in his “victory speech” in Benghazi in September 2011, after the toppling of Muammar al-Gaddafi. The price of seeing himself as an action man was Libya becoming a stateless zone fought over by rival jihadists and a major hub for people-smuggling into Europe. Together with George Osborne, Cameron was also cheerleader in a madcap rush to hand over sensitive technology to China as part of what they thought would be a new dawn in Sino-British relations. It is not bad intentions that make bad actors in politics but the conceit of doing great things.

[See also: The former spy Christopher Steele: “There is a serious vacuum in the Kremlin. It can’t last”]

Herron seems to suggest that all the evil in the world comes from one section of the political spectrum. In fact, threats to civilised life come from many directions and are continuously changing. At one point in the TV series, Diana Taverner remarks that she and her colleagues focused on Islamist rather than far-right terrorism when they should have been watching both. It is a fair comment. But it would also be fair to say that when Islamist terrorism came to the forefront the threats emanating from Russia were considered of secondary importance. An assassination in a sushi restaurant off Piccadilly Circus and an attempted murder together with the death of a British civilian in the cathedral city of Salisbury reset perceptions of danger. In the near future, the threat from China may be larger than any of these.

It would be refreshing if a writer of Herron’s gifts turned their attention to skulduggery in political milieux that few contemporary novelists have ventured to explore. So far as I know, there is as yet no fictional treatment of the events in which a coterie of far-left activists briefly seized control of one of this country’s historic political parties. If such a novel is ever written and published, it would tell a story not only of zealotry and ferocious infighting. It would be a chronicle of centrist complacency regarding the once quite real project of Britain being governed by an anti-Western, anti-Semitic ideological clique.

If Herron’s portrayal of politicians is caricatural, his insight into the slow horses is intimate and affectionate. Struggling with chronic low-level depression, worried by their alcohol, drug and eating habits, living in cramped, expensive and permanently temporary quarters and dogged by a sense that life is going on somewhere else, they are unexceptional Londoners. When it is not fantasy, Bad Actors is a story of normal desperation and intermittent catharsis.

[See also: Reflections of the elusive Jean Rhys]

Most human lives are interesting not for what is hidden in them. It is their shifting surfaces that are profound. Herron is a magician in conjuring these fluctuating impressions and the prosaic poetry that surrounds them. The last lines of this deceptive tale of the secret world read:

“From the street below, a snatch of what might be music drifts upwards, though it is more likely the accidental percussion of daily life: heel on pavement, tyre on a loose drain lid. Whatever it is, this theme penetrates Slough House for a moment, probably through the cardboard-patched windows, and dances around in the dust-speckled air, attempting to get a party going. But the enterprise is doomed from the start, and lasts no longer than it takes a sudden draught to slam a door, after which the building – its creaky stairs and broken skirting boards – its rackety furniture and stained ceilings – its bewildered wiring, its confused pipes – its ups and downs and highs and lows and all its debts and credits – slumps into its usual torpor, as the morning’s wax surrenders to the afternoon wane. And if, outside, the day carries on with its usual background business, inside it pauses for a drawn-out breath and then drops like a curtain.”

Let’s hope we soon have another glimpse of everyday life in Slough House.

Bad Actors
Mick Herron
Baskerville, 352pp, £18.99

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This article appears in the 08 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Marked Man