Saturday, May 08, 2010

Brooding Suspense at the Unromantic Side of Espionage: SLOW HORSES, Mick Herron

How old were you when you first read a James Bond novel? Did your parents know you were reading it? Dave and I watched one worried mom, a friend of ours, agonize over whether her son was old enough to read one -- then she sat down and re-read the book that she'd recalled as erotic and dangerous, and laughed so much at its "old-fashioned" language and ideas that she told the 12-year-old to go right ahead after all.

Maybe because I'm female, my fascination with Bond books at age 12 or so wasn't with the scantily dressed and beautiful women that James lures toward him, but with the villains, the perils, the escapades (secret weapons, too). A year later, I read my first John Le Carré, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and from then on, I wanted serious espionage as part of my bookshelf.

When Le Carré presented the George Smiley books (Tinker, Tailer, Soldier, Spy; Smiley's People; etc.), a powerful thread of global loss and grief trembled within the work. Smiley's personal losses and angers embodied the change in England's position in the world: no longer the crown of Empire, no longer the gentlemanly nation of quiet strength, but instead a less important player in a world whose injustice and criminal actions held the top headlines daily.

Mick Herron's books, in one reviewer's words, provide "post-cold-war spy games" as a thread of continuity. But with SLOW HORSES (available June 1, or a bit before that, from Soho Press), Herron captures the bitter disillusionment of today's espionage as directed by the British government in corporate mode -- that is, with goals and objectives and mandated hierarchies.

River Carter's actions in a simulated terrorist attack cost him his fast-track slot in the intelligence bureau. Chasing the wrong target meant allowing the other person -- the bomber -- to in theory take out an Underground (subway) station, killing many people, destroying trains and lines, and more. Even during the simulation, his mistake has real, and costly, effects. Most pertinent of all for River, the moment of confusion bumps him off the path to the top (or at least the upper realms) and out into the pathetic group of "losers" banished to Slough House -- a department handed the most pointless labors for the intelligence network, and reminded repeatedly of its ineptitude and pariah status. Small wonder that its members accelerate their drinking and other random pursuits of misery. Mostly they only stick with their jobs out of a refusal to let the system force them to resign.

There's an ironic pun embedded in the name of the group, since "Slough" is pronounced"slu" or "slau" -- Webster's defines the noun as "a place of deep mud or mire." And its residents are thus the ones you'd never bet on, the official "slow horses" who've left the fast track.

River stands out among these trembling old hands not only for his odd name and his youth, but also for his family heritage of "service." But his grandfather, the "O.B." (I'm sure O is for old; you choose what the B represents), may be enough to keep him from being outright fired, but not enough to get him back into the good graces of the powers that be:
His grandfather said, "I hope you're not planning anything foolish, River."
"It's beneath my abilities."
"It's a hoop they're making you jump through."
"I've jumped. I've jumped over and over again."
"They won't keep you there forever."
"You think? ... They've a whole club in the MoD [Ministry of Defence] of Hooray Henries who've left  classified disks in taxis without having their lunch privileges revoked. But Harper's never going back to Regent's Park, is he? And neither am I."
Herron's previous five British suspense novels have taken a literary path through the stresses of death and destruction, starting with a sequence of four novels featuring investigator Zoë Boehm (Down Cemetery Road, 2003; The Last Voice You Hear, 2004; Why We Die, 2006; and Reconstruction, 2008). They've painted a grim portrait of postmodern life, of Oxford-area success and failure, fear and depression. Smoke and Whispers followed in 2009. With the 2010 publication of Slow Horses, Herron adds a darkly wonderful humor to River's life in grubby offices with manipulative superiors, demonstrating that slow horses can still run the track. From the moment that River feels a twinge of regret for tormenting his officemate by sorting stinky trash all over the office rug, to River's increasing suspicion that his lame-duck boss Lamb is actually running a (forbidden!) espionage operation in which television, terrorism, and office secrets have equal parts, a partnership among the broken and damaged takes on life.

And redemption, even out of dark, grimy Slough House, begins to look possible. Not probable, mind you. But were you expecting some sort of blinding light, out of this group of losers??

If you like the Peculiar Crimes Unit that Christopher Fowler portrays, or the absurd pleasures of Charles McCarry's deft plotting in Old Boys, then SLOW HORSES will tickle you. More broadly, if you enjoy either espionage or British police procedurals, let this masterful storyteller stretch the genres for you with a generous twist of wit and a sardonic view of how determination and doggedness can drag disaster -- and perhaps something better -- into your life.

PS -- There are two cover images available for this title at present. The one at the top of this review is the one on the Soho Press website; the other, shown down here, is the one on the advance readers edition.

No comments: