Anthony McIntyre ✒ Late yesterday evening, on my way home from Dublin, thirst well quenched by beer and whiskey, I rang my wife. 


My request was simple – that she have episode 3 of Slow Horses ready to go as soon as I reached home. To my dismay, she told me it would be a further week before it is broadcast. Not the worst news in the world . . . but still. 

Having watched the first two episodes, we are hooked. It was not love at first sight - there had been a lead in: we both had read the novel from which the TV adaptation has been adroitly extricated. The first in a sequence of books, it was clear in a world of espionage - where everything is opaque - that Mick Herron would remain in his Slow Horse saddle for a long time.

Slow Horses is the name given to the denizens of Slough House. It is a sort of back table for wayward spooks, to which they are banished by more senior toffs against terrorism in the hope that they might resign or more crudely, as the vulgar station head might put it, fuck off. It was a “way of losing people without having to get rid of them, sidestepping legal hassle and tribunal threats.”

For a time in the 1970s the back table was used in Crumlin Road Jail for those republicans, due to some perceived failing, considered unfit to dine with the wider cohort. Republicans would frequently complain about the brutality in RUC interrogations centres. Yet, when those churned out the other end -  bruised, demoralised and broken, facing long sentences in prison with the rigours of the blanket protest looming large - arrived in the Crum they suffered the indignity of learning that they were the children of a lesser republican god. Purgatory for them, where they could atone for the sin of breaking, often under torture.

It summed up the first rule of power expressed in Ozark: those who can, shit on the rest; those who can’t, clean it up. The operatives of MI5 too were reassured that to own their rear there were colleagues they could crap on. Slough House means “not being needed.”

We are never sure why Jackson Lamb has ended up in Slough House. He is the prime mover, shaker, stallion in chief in his dingy stable. His redoubtable talents would surely be in demand elsewhere. Although Slough House was not supposed to run operations, that it did just that when called upon might help explain not so much how he arrived but how he became the primus inter pares when he did. Lamb was not some keyboard commando but had risked life and limb as a “Joe” in the field.

Lamb is more of a wolf than anything else, but his cynicism and vulgarity blend to make him the stand out character. He should be obnoxious, but the reader is drawn to him, even if holding their nose. He is brilliantly played by Gary Oldman in the screen version. The character, whether on screen or page is anything but Oldman’s George Smiley. Lamb might be a slob, but he is no slouch.

The chaos within the intelligence agencies invites wonder as to how anything ever gets done. The spooks hate each other. They have an incurable penchant for deviousness and shafting colleagues. Their own familiarity with and proximity to treachery, where internal betrayal for career advantage and office positioning is the first commandment, leaves them like birds in a garden who before each bite scan the terrain for danger to themselves. They are perhaps best placed to spot treachery, so eager to protect themselves against it as retaliation for their own.

So many have been sent to Slough House that there are enough of them to make a line up to equal any Aintree Grand National on starter’s orders. Amongst them, Catherine Standish for whom alcohol had moved from being a solution to a problem. Lamb has a tendency to pour a glass of whiskey when she enters his office, although his gas rather than his glass is likely to be the first intruder in her nostrils.  There are other characters with a different pedigree and who inhabit a more upmarket kennel than Slough House. The sleazy Spider Webb is a nemesis of River Cartwright. Diane Tavender, Lady Di behind her back, is the archetypical string, nay, noose puller. And then there are the dogs. Their type featured previously in a novel called Animal Farm.

The plot hardly gets out of the stalls before the reader is grabbed, the niceties of preparation dispensed with. Cartwright is deemed to have messed up on an operation at Kings Cross Station, resulting in multiple casualties. Not really the full story but . . . it is his free pass to Slough House.

Cartwright immediately looms large and seems set to be the central character. But that role is not for him. There are ample characters although none big enough to remove the ample girth of Jackson Lamb.

A young stand up comedian is kidnapped, and his snatchers threaten to behead him in an act of exemplary terror. In a race against time the hunt is on to beat the chop. The far right makes an appearance as does a sinister side of journalism. A politician, likened elsewhere to Boris Johnson, too has a gig. 

In part the reins pulling on the slow horses are made up from threads of black humour and unpredictability. Even for the reader who is not all that enamoured to the espionage genre, they will find a flutter on the Slow Horses of Slough House, the beginning of a winning run.

Mick Herron, 2010. Slow Horses. ISIS. ISBN-13: ‎978-0753186947

⏩ Follow on Twitter @AnthonyMcIntyre.

Slow Horses

Anthony McIntyre ✒ Late yesterday evening, on my way home from Dublin, thirst well quenched by beer and whiskey, I rang my wife. 


My request was simple – that she have episode 3 of Slow Horses ready to go as soon as I reached home. To my dismay, she told me it would be a further week before it is broadcast. Not the worst news in the world . . . but still. 

Having watched the first two episodes, we are hooked. It was not love at first sight - there had been a lead in: we both had read the novel from which the TV adaptation has been adroitly extricated. The first in a sequence of books, it was clear in a world of espionage - where everything is opaque - that Mick Herron would remain in his Slow Horse saddle for a long time.

Slow Horses is the name given to the denizens of Slough House. It is a sort of back table for wayward spooks, to which they are banished by more senior toffs against terrorism in the hope that they might resign or more crudely, as the vulgar station head might put it, fuck off. It was a “way of losing people without having to get rid of them, sidestepping legal hassle and tribunal threats.”

For a time in the 1970s the back table was used in Crumlin Road Jail for those republicans, due to some perceived failing, considered unfit to dine with the wider cohort. Republicans would frequently complain about the brutality in RUC interrogations centres. Yet, when those churned out the other end -  bruised, demoralised and broken, facing long sentences in prison with the rigours of the blanket protest looming large - arrived in the Crum they suffered the indignity of learning that they were the children of a lesser republican god. Purgatory for them, where they could atone for the sin of breaking, often under torture.

It summed up the first rule of power expressed in Ozark: those who can, shit on the rest; those who can’t, clean it up. The operatives of MI5 too were reassured that to own their rear there were colleagues they could crap on. Slough House means “not being needed.”

We are never sure why Jackson Lamb has ended up in Slough House. He is the prime mover, shaker, stallion in chief in his dingy stable. His redoubtable talents would surely be in demand elsewhere. Although Slough House was not supposed to run operations, that it did just that when called upon might help explain not so much how he arrived but how he became the primus inter pares when he did. Lamb was not some keyboard commando but had risked life and limb as a “Joe” in the field.

Lamb is more of a wolf than anything else, but his cynicism and vulgarity blend to make him the stand out character. He should be obnoxious, but the reader is drawn to him, even if holding their nose. He is brilliantly played by Gary Oldman in the screen version. The character, whether on screen or page is anything but Oldman’s George Smiley. Lamb might be a slob, but he is no slouch.

The chaos within the intelligence agencies invites wonder as to how anything ever gets done. The spooks hate each other. They have an incurable penchant for deviousness and shafting colleagues. Their own familiarity with and proximity to treachery, where internal betrayal for career advantage and office positioning is the first commandment, leaves them like birds in a garden who before each bite scan the terrain for danger to themselves. They are perhaps best placed to spot treachery, so eager to protect themselves against it as retaliation for their own.

So many have been sent to Slough House that there are enough of them to make a line up to equal any Aintree Grand National on starter’s orders. Amongst them, Catherine Standish for whom alcohol had moved from being a solution to a problem. Lamb has a tendency to pour a glass of whiskey when she enters his office, although his gas rather than his glass is likely to be the first intruder in her nostrils.  There are other characters with a different pedigree and who inhabit a more upmarket kennel than Slough House. The sleazy Spider Webb is a nemesis of River Cartwright. Diane Tavender, Lady Di behind her back, is the archetypical string, nay, noose puller. And then there are the dogs. Their type featured previously in a novel called Animal Farm.

The plot hardly gets out of the stalls before the reader is grabbed, the niceties of preparation dispensed with. Cartwright is deemed to have messed up on an operation at Kings Cross Station, resulting in multiple casualties. Not really the full story but . . . it is his free pass to Slough House.

Cartwright immediately looms large and seems set to be the central character. But that role is not for him. There are ample characters although none big enough to remove the ample girth of Jackson Lamb.

A young stand up comedian is kidnapped, and his snatchers threaten to behead him in an act of exemplary terror. In a race against time the hunt is on to beat the chop. The far right makes an appearance as does a sinister side of journalism. A politician, likened elsewhere to Boris Johnson, too has a gig. 

In part the reins pulling on the slow horses are made up from threads of black humour and unpredictability. Even for the reader who is not all that enamoured to the espionage genre, they will find a flutter on the Slow Horses of Slough House, the beginning of a winning run.

Mick Herron, 2010. Slow Horses. ISIS. ISBN-13: ‎978-0753186947

⏩ Follow on Twitter @AnthonyMcIntyre.

8 comments:

  1. I watched the first episode last night - fantastic. Looking forward to the rest of the reason. Apple TV do some outstanding series.

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    Replies
    1. I'm with you on this one Brandon. The books got rave reviews and I guess it will be the same for the series.

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  2. I watched the first episode last night-utter ballix. Totally unbelievable from the start. The big Ops Room with the hard nosed 50 something woman in a power suit ordering her minions around, trying too hard to look like yank wank TV. All those analysts and pen pushers in the Ops Room during a live op? No chance. Or having a dingy backwater for the unwanted to languish in? Ballix, such slights would create grievances that would turn the unwanted against their own side, a la Aldrich Ames, it would never happen. Also, the cliché of having 20 something hooray Henry spies fresh out of Eton and Oxbridge? Just doesn't happen anymore, the recruitment policy for decades has been for diversity in age, class, gender and culture/language ability. If you want a good spy series then, as I've told you before, watch Le Bureau des Legendes, the gold standard of spy TV. Pay the subscription for one month and binge, you won't be disappointed.

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    Replies
    1. Licence has been used for sure - but Spooks was the same. Mick Herron is said to have made a hybrid agency out of MI5 and MI6. It depends on what we want out of our viewing. Some people (myself included) would never watch Indiana Jones but millions love it.

      I loved Slow Horses and am eagerly awaiting Episode 3. Also gonna read the third in the series.

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  3. If I want artistic licence I watch sci-fi or fantasy. Espionage is far more interesting when kept real and the subtleties of deception are exposed over time. Maybe the books are more appetising than the TV series.

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  4. It depends on what we want from what we watch. Many dislike spy novels because they are too slow and give rise to tedium rather than excitement. Which is why Bond is more popular than Smiley. My favourite espionage novel is Charles McCarry's The Last Supper, read back in 1986.

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  5. A cracking episode on Friday. I think if I hadn't read so much about Spooks activity in the North, I'd have found the story line too far-fetched to allow myself to get into it. But I'm still enjoying it.

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    Replies
    1. it's great - Oldman plays the character so well.

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