British author Mick Herron’s second book in the River Cartwright/Slough House series, Dead Lions, won the CWA Gold Dagger Award for the Best Crime Novel. I read it last year and enjoyed it — the plot, the structure, the dry humour and the characters. Naturally, I was drawn towards its prequel, whose review I’m presenting here.
The book’s premise is pretty simple. River Cartwright is a “slow horse” like his colleagues at Slough House, an address where disgraced and fallen spies are sent to rot away. He is asked to do some surveillance on a castaway journalist by his boss. His observations lead him to think that he is being picked on by his boss, who he thinks is asking him to perform a useless task. No one has any idea what’s going to happen until a boy is kidnapped from Leeds by some people. The kidnappers put up a video on the BBC’s website claiming they’ll behead him in 48 hours. The identity of the boy isn’t clear and no reason is given for the abduction, neither is any demand for ransom made. The actual intelligence team i.e., MI-5, with their address at Regent Park and the slow horses all get down to saving the kid and in the process, a lot of dark secrets (staple food in the spy business) tumble out of the closet. Mr. Herron starts slowly, moving at an almost-glacial pace. The first few chapters or so proved very tough to negotiate for me. Low on activity and lots of character build-up and description. The same was the case with Dead Lions too so having to deal with those things again wasn’t very entertaining. In fact, about 20 – 25% of the book (the initial part) is devoted to fleshing out the characters, their respective back stories and their true affiliations. It almost doesn’t feel like there’s a plot until, without warning, we are dropped in on the action. From there, it’s a joyful ride all the way to the end. As the chapters increase, unlikely alliances are formed while spy games and unholy alliances are unearthed. The seriousness of the plot is well offset by some very dry humour that never fails to pack a punch. The characters and their interactions make for some of the funniest banter I’ve ever read. Mr. Herron’s specialty, from what I have gathered after reading two of his books, is that he never expresses the actions in a bland, obvious way. He takes a different route, leading the reader through beautiful meadows and breweries before arriving at the scene of the crime. A little patience on the part of the reader results in huge payoffs in the end.
Mr. Herron gives us a roster that has peculiar names and even weirder characters — Jackson Lamb, Catherine Standish, Louisa Guy, Min Harper, Roderick Ho et al. Lamb is the boss at Slough House and for me, he’s the lead in this book. From his actions to his decisions to his frame and his idiosyncratic behaviour, Lamb is an exceedingly irresistible character, a one of a kind. He’s not always gentle, uses the F-word and associated profanity a lot but he’s amazing. I absolutely loved the character. If ever there is a movie adaptation, I’d like to see Ray Winston in that role. I think he would be perfect. Other characters, including the supposed hero River (an odd name which gets a lot of space and ridicule in the books too) are well-fleshed out, thanks to the lengthy intro. Every single person at Slough House has a fiasco in his/her past and a secret s/he guards zealously.
The book doesn’t try being too preachy nor does it try to deal with spies of the calibre of Jason Bourne or James Bond. These are everyday people like you and me, whose triumphs and mistakes are closer to our own. You wouldn’t find it in a James Bond book but here, if a person eats a sausage sandwich, he farts and says he’ll keep having gastric trouble throughout the day. Natural, right? That’s the kind of drama and people you encounter when you turn the pages of Slow Horses.
Genre : Drama, Thriller, Spy Fiction.
Rating : 4/5
Share your views and thoughts on the book in the comments section. Thanks for reading.