Thriller Corner: Slow Horses by Mick Herron #BookReview

Slough House is a dumping ground for British intelligence agents who’ve screwed up a case in any number of ways—by leaving a secret file on a train or blowing a surveillance. River Cartwright, one such “slow horse,” is bitter about his failure and about his tedious assignment transcribing cell phone conversations.

When a young man is abducted and his kidnappers threaten to broadcast his beheading live on the Internet, River sees an opportunity to redeem himself.

Is the victim who he first appears to be? And what’s the kidnappers’ connection with a disgraced journalist? As the clock ticks on the execution, River finds that everyone has his own agenda.

Title: Slow Horses | Author: Mick Herron | Series: Jackson Lamb #1 | Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton | Pages: 336 | ISBN: 9781473674189 | Publication date: 1st June 2010 | Source: Self-purchased

My dad has been on at me for ages to read the Jackson Lamb books¸ now that I’ve read the first of them, I can see why. The old man has taste when it comes to thrillers, it has to be said. ‘Slow Horses’ is the first in a series of six (currently) novels and a couple of Kindle novellas. After finishing it, I can see myself reading all of them in pretty quick succession.  

What makes the book work is the fact that it feels so credible. Part of that is down to the convincing portrayal of spycraft; much of it is a result of the fact that Mick Herron has created believable, three dimensional characters. The concept is that MI5 (the UK security service responsible for tackling domestic threats) has two streams – the high-flying, sharp suited go getters and those who have fallen out of favour. Jackson Lamb is a brilliant but unpleasant and unpopular MI5 officer who runs Slough House, an out of the way office where agents who’ve either failed publicly or upset the wrong people get sent to work. Slough House agents are side-lined onto unappealing busy work like going through journalist’s dustbins, while the high-fliers get to all the sexy spy stuff. 

The book concerns a young British man who is kidnapped by an extremist group threatening to behead him on a livestream. As it develops it becomes clear that both the victim and the extremists are not what they appeared, and the plot gets enjoyably twisty. Sometimes books with convoluted plots can leave me scratching my head, but Mick Herron nailed it with this one. I rarely saw the twists coming, and when they came, they didn’t lose me. 

Where the book really shines, though, is in its characters. Even the lesser ones are well done and convincing, and the unfortunates of Slough House in particular are brilliant. Each of them is distinct and convincing, with an engaging back story and an underdog appeal. Lamb himself is a powerhouse. Abrasive, nasty, determined and utterly believable. The blending of great characters and a solid plot results in a book which is gripping, involving and really fun to read. 

My dad did good with this recommendation then, and I look forward to reading the rest of the series and comparing notes with him. In return, I recommended to him the ‘Vinyl Detective’ books recently (the third of which I reviewed here a few weeks ago) and he’s making his way through those at pace. Now I just need to get him into McBain…  

4/5

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