15 February 2023

A Fox in Lamb's Clothing

Back in December Eve Fisher wrote about discovering Mick Herron's Slow Horses series.  I'd like to talk bout one aspect of these excellent books.

If you aren't familiar with them, the conceit is that Slough House is a rundown office building where MI-5 dumps its incompetents, giving them almost-worthless busywork (e.g. This car model was the most popular with terrorists five years ago, so check out everyone in England who bought one that year.) in the hopes that they will quit.  Because of the name of the building they are known as the Slow Horses.

And their leader is Jackson Lamb.  Ah, Jackson Lamb.

Imagine the worst boss you can conceive of.  Double it. Now you're getting there.  Lamb is vulgar, sloppy, lazy, vain, unhygienic, snide, malicious - and it's hard to tell whether he is really racist and misogynistic or just says such things to be as unpleasant as possible.

What type of things does he say?  

Well, when a member of his group complains about being left out of the loop: "You're always out of the loop.  The loop's miles away.  Nearest you'll get to being in the loop is when they make a documentary about it and show it on the History Channel." 

Here is Lamb mourning the death of a member of his crew: "Even when he was good he wasn't any good.  And it's a long time since he was any good."

His idea of a pep talk: "Don't anyone get shot or anything.  It goes on my record."

Please notice I did not say he is stupid or incompetent.  Because he isn't.  He slides through the dangerous waters of the spy world like an eel (okay, a corpulent. flatulent eel.)  And if he has another  redeeming quality  it is while the bosses at headquarters see their agents as pawns to serve their personal ambitions, Lamb does not. "A handler never burns his own joe.  It's the worst treachery of all."

In short, Lamb is a great, three-dimensional character and he makes me think about how genre literature is stuffed with great characters who we love to read about but would loath having to live or work with.

I mean, seriously: if you were Watson how long would you have tolerated Holmes before you smashed that insufferable egotist's head in with his own violin?

I think also of Nero Wolfe, Horace Rumpole, Gregory House, and others who insist on doing things their own way and get away with it because they are usually right.  (And now I am trying to think of any female characters that fit that description.  Surely there must be some?)

One of the reasons we love these types of people is that they do the sorts of things we would never have the nerve to do. And  they get away with it.  Mick Herron himself says of Lamb: "He says things I would never say.  I look back at some of these lines and think: My God, did I write that.  My mother reads this stuff!"

And now Mr. Lamb has come to television.  When I heard that Apple+ had chosen Gary Oldman to play our hero I immediately signed up for the channel.  I have not been disappointed.  (This is the second great British spy character Oldman has played. I enjoy his performance in Slow Horses much more than I did his version of George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.)

I have read the first four books in the series.  That means I am only halfway through, and more are expected. Hot diggity!


  1. I finished Slow Horses and immediately bought Dead Lions (2nd in the series). No flashy James Bond here, just regular people trained as spies, but they have screwed up in some fashion.

  2. I can't think of any recurring female characters in fiction who are allowed to be as generally flawed and flatulent as Jackson Lamb. Even in fiction, women have to be relatively attractive - or very old - in order to recur. Those who "who insist on doing things their own way and get away with it because they are usually right": Liza Cody's Eva Wylie (female wrestler, lot of fun), to some extent V. I. Warshawski, and from the the non-mystery genre, Miss Mapp (Mapp & Lucia series).

  3. True but few lions would be admired were they lionesses and vice versa.

  4. I have GOT to read these books. I watched the first season of SLOW HORSES and loved it. Thanks for the reminder, Rob!

    1. The first season was very faithful to the book, The second is less so (if what I laughingly call my memory is accurate), but still close. I understand Apple+ has signed up for two more seasons (i.e. books). By the way, at Left Coast Crime last year Mick Herron talked about the novelty of being the wise authority in the writer's room. "I said, oh, I don't think Lamb would say that. And they reply, he did, on page 127..."

  5. B.K. Stevens wrote a series with a terrifying, physically imposing female investigator who loved to boss people around. However, Bonnie’s character came with a couple of humanizing twists. One was this rough and tough hard-boiled broad melted around her police detective fiancĂ©. The other was she was entirely, utterly cowed by her mother to the extent she couldn’t tell her she wanted to marry the nice policeman.

    Rob, I haven’t begun the series, but it sounds like a must-do. Thanks, my friend.

  6. I'm not sure I'd want to work with Vera and drive round in her jeep. She's a dear to watch or read, but working with her????

    1. Good example, Candace. Glad to have you on board here.


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