- Slough House, by Mick Herron. John Murray, $32.99.
Mick Herron is Oxford educated, reading English at Balliol College at the same time as Boris Johnson. It is perhaps not surprising that amongst the recurring characters in his acclaimed Slough House series of novels, which are as much political satire as spy thrillers, there is Peter Judd, a former politician, described as "a loose cannon with a floppy haircut and a bicycle".
Slough House is the seventh in the series, which began with Slow Horses (2010). Herron has been compared by many to John le Carre, simply because they both write about spies. Herron's spies, however, inhabit a world of failure in Slough House, a shabby three-storey terrace near the Barbican, enduring "a punishment posting . . . losers assigned to a dead-end desk, spending the rest of forever in a mist of thwarted ambition".
Jackson Lamb, both the tormentor and protector of his team of "slow horses" is overweight, foulmouthed, flatulent, grubby and politically incorrect. He is, however, when the need arises, consistently able to challenge and outwit Diana Taverner, the indomitable Head of Regent's Park, Herron's equivalent of le Carre's Circus.
Slough House begins with an assassination in Russia by the British secret service, a revenge response to the Salisbury Novichok poisonings. The attack was authorised by Taverner but funded by a private consortium created by Peter Judd, which could if discovered, compromise Taverner's position.
Meanwhile in Slough House, Roddy Ho, IT expert and deluded master spy is involved in "saving Slough House from whatever deep-impact shit was headed its way. As usual. . . . This was the spook trade and when things went awry on Spook Street, they generally went the full Chris Grayling".
Not only has Slough House been erased from the Service data-base, but the "slow horses" too. At the same time it becomes apparent that the "horses" are being watched, used for training purposes by the Park's agents. When two ex-horses die in mysterious circumstances, the occupants of Slough House realise they are being watched by their own side and hunted by someone else.
It's the formulaic nature of Herron's novels that make them both standalone and successful. As each novel begins, he takes his readers on a tour of Slough House, before introducing his eclectic cast of characters and the machinations of the inter-office feud between Taverner and Lamb. He continually blurs the distinction between good and evil, heroes and villains, using dark humour to comment on life after Brexit, self-interest in Whitehall and the power of the media.
Slough House is tense, funny and well-paced, and I defy anyone not to be affected by the ending.