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.
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.