15 December 2022

Better Late Than Never

"Well, better late than never" was my reaction to reading Slow Horses by Mick Herron.  Seriously - where was I when news of this book, this series, got out? I only found out about it because of the review and interview by Jill Lepore in the Dec. 5 edition of The New Yorker.  As soon as I read about Jackson Lamb - "a disgusting, lumpy, vulgar, chain-smoking Rabelaisian wreck of a man. [who's] 'been said to resemble Timothy Spall, with worse teeth,'” - and his unmerry band of MI.5 rejects, I was in.

So I checked out the book from my local library, read it in a major gulp, and plan to read the entire series as fast as I can gulp them down, too.

Now I've read many books this year which have not induced such a deep thirst for more from the same author, even though I thought they weren't bad or pretty good.  So why this book? Why this series?  And it dawned on me that Slough House strongly reminds me of Len Deighton's novels of an unnamed agent (named Harry Palmer in the movies) working for the W.O.O.C.(P) and their group of misfits. I read every one of those books. I also read the complete Ashenden series, and the complete James Bond canon (of that time) as well, but it was Harry Palmer that won my heart, for a thousand reasons, beginning with atmosphere, sarcasm, and wit. 

BTW, I wrote a blog post some time ago that included my criticism of James Bond as spy:  (HERE)

"the interesting question of why Ian Fleming - who certainly knew better - made James Bond so damned obvious. Apparently, on November 29, 2016, Anthony Horowitz and David Farr got into a 90 minute debate as to who was the greatest spy novelist of all time, Fleming or Le CarrĂ©. (Full Transcript.) Horowitz' summation was that ‘George Smiley is a fascinating character. James Bond is an icon. That’s the difference.’
And that's largely true, despite the fact that James Bond was actually a horrible spy. Think about it: He uses his real name. All the time. He blows his cover, every time. He gets captured. All the time. And he destroys everything he touches… There's a whole lot of things get blown up, run over, caved in, and I'm not just talking about the women. (10-reasons-james-bond-worst-spy-.)

Real spies must be far more like Deighton's anonymous agent, Smiley, and Ashenden, who don't stand out in a crowd, who are never sitting at the baccarat table in full tuxedo gear, lighting a cigarette, with unlimited credit, who is never known by name by every supervillain on the planet (or much of anyone else) and who, rather than announce their name to all and sundry, don't even remember what their real name is.

And real active spies must be headquartered not in flash offices, but hidden, where they're highly unlikely to be photographed on their way in and out.  Both Slough House and the W.O.O.C.(P) are tucked away in seedy neighborhoods, behind nondescript doors that supposedly lead to a business of some sort - but of course, it's never used and certainly has no customers. Inside: shabby offices with lots of mold and mildew, peeling paint, instant Nescafe and bad tea, cracked linoleum floors, old desks, battered chairs.

Granted, Palmer is an active agent, who's good at his job, while all of the Slough House members have screwed up royally.  And Dawlish, W.O.O.C.(P) Chief is infinitely less profane than Lamb.  Though he can be just as sarcastic. In The Billion Dollar Brain, Palmer asks why he's being sent to Finland, since he speaks no Finnish, etc., and Dawlish says, "You are the one best protected against the cold." 

BTW, if Jackson Lamb is "Timothy Spall gone to seed", I always envisioned Dawlish as Leo G. Carroll, with his pipe and three piece wool suit. In fact, I figured that was why they cast Carroll as Waverly, the Chief in the Man From U.N.C.L.E. Typecasting, right? 

And there is no Miss Moneypenny:  The W.O.O.C.(P) secretary is Alice, a middle-aged crabby administrator, who's called a secretary, but certainly doesn't have time to make tea for everyone who comes in the door. If you need anything, you call her, and one of my favorite scenes is when Palmer is trying to open a new case file and Alice finally, grudgingly, agrees. She names the case file "Death's-head Hawkmoth" which he then has to handwrite on every page…

And Catherine Standish in Slough House is no one's secretary at all, really. She makes tea for Lamb, and she's an administrator, but mostly she's serving her time. It could have been worse. She's there as one of Jackson Lamb's few (perhaps only?) acts of reparation, for sending her into hell in the first place. 

And the characters:  One of Palmer's coworkers is a young employee, Chico (think Bertie Wooster without Jeeves), who screws up just often enough that he probably ended up in the 60s version of Slough House. At one point Palmer tells a chattering Chico to go to a library and read a book for a change. Chico asks, "What book?" Palmer tells him, "Any book." 

“You’re joking, sir.” “I never joke, Chico. The truth is quite adequately hilarious.”

And God knows the following piece of dialog (with more profanity added) could have been just as well come from Slow Horses:

It was a large black case and contained a ream of reports. One of them he passed across to me.
"Read it while I'm here. I can't leave it."
"It's secret?"
"No, our document copier has gone wrong and it's the only one I have."
- An Expensive Place to Die

So you can see why I was and am overjoyed to find a new series of books with a similar combination of wit, incompetence, professional sarcasm, plot, seedy backgrounds, outrageous characters, intelligence work, clever crafting, and a writing style that fills me with, in the immortal words of Jackson Lamb, “joie de fucking vivre”.

But then, in the words of Li Kao, "I have a slight flaw in my character."*

BTW, No I don't get Apple TV+ and don't plan too. I have cast Slow Horses brilliantly in my own mind, and am very satisfied.  Plus, I'm PC, not Apple, and always have been.

* Barry Hughart, Bridge of Birds


My latest story, "The Closing of the Lodge" is in the latest AHMM:

My story, "Cool Papa Bell", is in Josh Pachter's Paranoia Blues;

And on Amazon HERE

And more are coming!  Huzzah!


  1. Also love Herron's fictional take on Boris Johnson: ""Fluffy-haired and youthful at forty-eight, and with a vocabulary peppered with archaic expostulations—Balderdash! Tommy-rot!! Oh my giddy aunt!!!—Peter Judd had long established himself as the unthreatening face of the old-school right, popular enough with the GBP [Great British Public], which thought him an amiable idiot, to make a second living outside Parliament as a rent-a-quote-media-whore-cum-quiz-show-panel-favourite, and to get away with minor peccadilloes like dicking his kids’ nanny, robbing the taxman blind, and giving his party leader conniptions with off-script flourishes."

  2. Didn't Michael Caine play Harry Palmer? I'll take a look at Slow Horses.

    I enjoyed the "Lodge" story.

  3. Yes, Michael Caine was Harry Palmer. And was HUGELY popular. He made men with glasses hot.
    Glad you enjoyed the Lodge. I wish I could sneak you in to the original - unforgettable place.

  4. Herron is amazing. I am currently reading Spook Street, the fourth Slow Horses book, and it is just as riveting and hilarious as the others. I plan to write a piece for SleuthSayers about the amazing Jackson Lamb. BTW, when I heard Apple+ had cast Gary Oldman as Lamb I dropped Netflix for Apple and was not disappointed. I am looking forward to the second season of SH which is on now. Oh, and I read the "Harry Palmer" books when they came out and thankks for the reminder. Good stuff.

    1. Sigh. That was me, not Anonymous. Robert Lopresti

    2. As soon as this blizzard is over, I'm going to the library and getting more of Herron's books. Seriously, I haven't gulped down a book that fast in a long, long time.

  5. Oooo, insulting us Mac users. Now I understand why I kept obliterating all your hard work!

    I was thoroughly entranced by Ipcress File, book, movie, and music. Funeral in Berlin, I liked almost as well. Billion Dollar Brain… not so much, but perhaps I paid too much attention to the fiche and chips instead of the characters.

    That other Leo, Leo McKern, would have made a great rumpled spymaster. He did make it all the way to № 2… twice.

  6. Leigh, not dissing the Mac users at all - it's just that my day job for years was as a secretary, and when computers came in, all the offices had PCs. It's what I trained on.

    I agree about Leo McKern. Although the voice I hear in my head saying all of Jackson Lamb's lines is that of Michael Gambon, playing the determinedly pessimistic, sarcastic, drunk father in "Perfect Strangers" (BBC Production).

  7. Before he invented Slough House he wrote a series of private eye novels set in Oxford. I haven't read them but I am currently reading Dolphin Junction, his short story collection, which contains several about his Oxford PIs. One thing that is even more obvious in the stories than the novels, I think, is his mastery of twists and misdirection.


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