The Loser-Spy Novelist for Our Times

Mick Herron writes about the broken spies sworn to protect today’s broken England.

Illustration by Paul Spella; Agence Opale / Alamy; Sergi Escribano; David Cornwell / Getty; John Murray

Are you a good reader, reader? Patient, curious, broadly cultured, and so on? I’m not—not anymore. Decades of email-checking have splintered my concentration; more recently and speedily, I’ve rotted out my attention span with Netflix and end-of-the-republic updates. Of the new mind, the prodigious and fluently networking postdigital mind, I am not in possession; I have only the perishing old mind, bleaching in chunks like the Great Barrier Reef. To sit in a chair, in a pool of educated light, and turn the pages of a novel … No chance. I twitch, I bounce. I start reaching for things. Then I get groggy.

Soho Press

So when somebody writes a book that grips and settles me, that makes a reader out of me again, I become quite helpless with gratitude. I feel this way about Mick Herron. Born in Newcastle upon Tyne, in England, and educated at Oxford, Herron writes squeakingly well-plotted spy thrillers. More than that, he composes—at the rate of a pulpist—the kind of efficient, darkly witty, tipped-with-imagery sentences that feel purpose-built to perforate my private daze of illiteracy. More than that, he’s a world-bringer, the creator of a still-growing fictional universe with its own gravity, lingo, and surface tension. He whacks his characters and winnows his cast with real 21st-century anti-sentimentality, but there always seems to be enough life-energy around to generate more stories. A TV series is in the works, and a new novel, Joe Country, was published in June.

At the center of Herron’s mythosphere is a terrible, terrible office: Slough House. Although … can Slough House be at the center of anything? It’s a terminus, permanently dislodged from—at odds with, even—the flow of existence. A grimly nondescript building somewhere in the London borough of Finsbury, a concrescence of London dilapidation and anonymity, Slough House is where you’ll find the “slow horses”—the MI5 operatives deemed too dysfunctional, addicted, high-risk, or failure-prone for anything but the most grinding busywork. J. K. Coe is there, monastically hoodied, sizzling with PTSD, listening to Keith Jarrett in his earbuds and not talking to anyone. Shirley Dander is there, always thinking about the wrap of cocaine in her pocket. (“It wasn’t like Shirley was an habitual user. It was a weekend thing with her, strictly Thursday to Tuesday.”) The manager of Slough House, its twice-as-toxic David Brent, its stained and farting Buddha, is Jackson Lamb. Once a formidable “joe”—Herron-speak for an agent—at Berlin Station, Lamb is now a chain-smoking, whiskey-drinking shambles and a creature of coal-black cynicism. Herron’s slow horses are always being pulled into plots, called upon to exercise their latent joe skills. As rejects, they are the natural enemies of the elite. They can smell a false-flag operation a mile off. No fake news for these genuine losers. In Joe Country, a hunt for the missing son of a deceased slow horse leads to an encounter with the most infernal echelons of the Establishment.

Herron has written 13 novels—six in the Slough House series—but he began his literary career as a poet. These are the opening lines of Joe Country:

The owl flew screaming from the barn, its wingtips bright with flame. For a moment, silhouetted against the blank sky, it was a dying angel, scorched by its own divinity, and then it was just a sooty husk, dropping like an anvil into the nearby trees.

Angel/anvil, ascent and gravity in paired syllables. Let’s hear it for the poet’s ear. The previous Slough House novel, 2018’s London Rules, kicks off with an assault-weapon attack on an English village: “The jeep, which had idled throughout the brief carnage, spat stones as it accelerated away.” It could be a scene from the British poet David Harsent’s apocalyptic 2005 sequence, Legion: “We cut our engines, then, and the dust / settled in silence.” It’s the same wiry language, the same sensation of shock acting on space.

Espionage is a shadow battle; it looks like the psyche. “On a normal day,” muses a spy in Joe Country, “London was bright and busy, full of open spaces and well-lit squares. But it was also trap streets and ghost stations; a spook realm below the real.” In this realm, people change shape; graves open and dead things rise; stories turn inside out. Like John le Carré—with whom he has been much compared—Herron is obsessed with that area of human experience, that area of the human brain, where paranoia overlaps with an essential, feral vigilance. “Since leaving the Park he’d had that uneasy sense of footsteps in synch with his own. There were tricks you could pull—double back to check a shop window, pause to fix a shoelace, halt at a bus stop …” No such thing as coincidence. Ordinary, bovine, walking-down-the-street life is an illusion, a sleep-state. Don’t get caught standing around: bad tradecraft.

Now and again le Carré’s Cold War—that ’70s Eastern Bloc dowdiness, all those strange drawling characters sipping their tea in a fuggy room in Cambridge Circus—reaches with long fingers into the Slough House milieu. Reckonings occur, decades delayed. The grandfather of one slow horse is a George Smiley–era spy sinking into dementia; narratives and counternarratives are coming loose in his head. But Herron was on the Underground, going to work, when London was bombed on July 7, 2005, and the mood of his spies is un–le Carré: a jazzy, jangled hyperalertness. Carnage is only a heartbeat—a switch, a trigger—away. The London where the slow horses live is an invisibly fanatical city: jihadists, rogue actors, wandering nodes of annihilation approaching the zero hour.

Working as fast as Herron does, you can stay close to life as it’s being lived and close, also, to the hallucination known as current events. “My feeling about Brexit,” he told The Irish Times earlier this year, “is people with vested interests have manipulated and lied to large sections of the community. There is a part of me that would like to go back and burn down the bastions of privilege that allowed these people to take over in such a self-serving way.” Well, there are several Brexits, but one of them, indeed, is the kind of elitist conspiracy that the slow horses—in their cack-handed, explosive way—are constantly uncovering.

The installation of Boris Johnson in 10 Downing Street will have done nothing to appease Herron. Peter Judd, the bicycle-riding, conscience-free home secretary in 2016’s Real Tigers, is less a caricature of Johnson than a police artist’s sketch: “He was a bulky man, not fat, but large, and though he had turned fifty the previous year, retained the schoolboy looks and fluffy-haired manner that had endeared him to the British public.” Isn’t that Johnson, lasering toward power under his halo of bumble? His fellow Brexiteer Nigel Farage makes an appearance, sort of, in London Rules, as the populist Dennis Gimball: “What should have been a cameo became a career, and the whole thing went on for what felt like decades.” Spoiler alert: Gimball gets his head knocked off by a falling paint can. The novelist’s revenge.

Herron has been praised for the wit and velocity of the workplace banter at Slough House—the infighting, and the awful, un-PC things that come out of Jackson Lamb’s mouth: “I’m an ardent feminist, as you know. But haven’t you girls got better things to worry your little heads about?” A little of this, I find, goes a long way. Sections of London Rules in particular seemed to me to be rather clogged with Veep-like repartee. Joe Country corrects the error. The slow horses are drawn out of fast-talking London and into wintry Wales, land of snowy ditches and burning owls. The bastions of privilege are casting their long shadow. And in joe country—the place, the mind-set, where the spies live—there are ironies and inversions, but no jokes.

This article appears in the October 2019 print edition with the headline “Broken Spies for a Broken England.”

By Mick Herron

​When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.