Archive for June, 2016

Slough Saga: not your father’s MI5

Saturday, June 18th, 2016

Originally published in the June 27 Weekly Standard (

Slough Saga
The world of Mick Herron is not your father’s MI5.

Jun 27, 2016 | By Ann Marlowe

It makes sense that Mick Herron’s third novel about MI5 can be enjoyed without reading the others: Coming in at the middle of things is integral to his books. It’s the condition of life, especially in a government bureaucracy. And the same could be said about intelligence gathering: It’s what we all try to do, from birth onward. Maybe this is why spy novels resonate.

But this isn’t your father’s MI5. Herron describes an intelligence service that devotes most of its energies to infighting, when not mounting false flag operations that endanger Britons. Oh, if a terrorist crops up, these folks will deal with him; but that’s a distraction from destroying competitors. It’s a commonplace of the spook novel that our side is no better than theirs, but Herron’s black comic message is even more demoralizing.

Luckily, it’s delivered in dialogue worthy of Ivy Compton-Burnett, funny and heartbreaking, with the vocabulary of a Balliol English graduate.

Herron reminds us that today’s crispest English dialogue is found in the office. This is something new; the English novel began in an era when people with the leisure to read novels did not work in today’s sense. Those delicious exchanges in Austen, Thackeray, Trollope, and the like take place mainly in people’s homes or country house parks. It’s only recently that novelists have given the workplace its due; television got there first. And Herron is one of the poets of office conversation.

Real Tigers is even better than its predecessors in his “Slough House” series. It follows the same cast of characters, minus one or two, as Slow Horses (2010) and Dead Lions (2013). They are MI5 agents who have messed up, exiled to Slough House, the nickname for an imaginary dilapidated building near the Barbican Theatre. In Herron’s series, MI5′s headquarters is called Regent’s Park—although, since 1994, the real MI5 has worked out of Thames House on the unfashionable south bank of the river. The errant agents are meant to be ground down with meaningless paperwork so that they will resign, saving the service the possible legal trouble and publicity attendant upon firing them.

The nickname Slough House is said to come from the remoteness of the location from Regent’s Park. There’s also a running joke about Slough House agents being “slow horses,” but slough—which refers to a marshy, low-lying area—is pronounced like “how” not “mow.”

I suspect that “Slough House” may allude to the Slough of Despond in The Pilgrim’s Progress, for the same reason that many of the Slough House agents use the phrase “Jesus wept” instead of the curses one might expect. “Jesus wept,” of course, is the shortest verse in the King James Bible and describes Jesus’ reaction to the death of Lazarus.

Slough House is purgatory and the agents spend much time figuring out why their colleagues are there—and little time figuring out why they made the mistakes that got them there. There’s a compulsive gambler, a cocaine addict, a former alcoholic, a woman with an uncontrollable temper, a hate-filled, vindictive IT genius. Others made terrible operational errors. There’s one possibly “innocent” agent among them, River Cartwright. And then there’s the boss, Jackson Lamb, whose name also has Christian echoes.

Lamb is one of the most memorable antiheroes of recent fiction: a fat, slovenly, compulsive eater and alcoholic whose flatulence is as legendary as his Cold War feats, whose wit is razor sharp, who can play both “Moscow rules” (hostile territory) and “London rules” (infighting). He may even have a conscience: We learned in Slow Horses that his disgust with the workings of MI5 led to his self-exile at Slough House.

The “slow horses” struggle to regain MI5 headquarters, though none of those exiled has returned. Regent’s Park looks more like hell than heaven from anywhere but Slough House, and one of the underlying questions of the series is why anyone would want to work there in the first place. The First Desk, Dame Ingrid Tearney, is “a hobbit of a woman,” dwarfish and bald due to a genetic condition, passive-aggressive, with “a bred-in-the-bone instinct for knowing how to needle, humiliate and frustrate her underlings.” And her closest rival, Head of Ops “Lady Di” Diana Taverner, is a snake.

Real Tigers concerns dirty tricks played by Taverner, Tearney, and Peter Judd, a home secretary with prime ministerial aspirations. Judd evokes Boris Johnson—”He’d established a brand—’a loose cannon with a floppy fringe and a bicycle’ ”—and he seethes about having been turned down when he tried to join the service 20 years earlier, being “a narcissistic sociopath with family money, a power complex and a talent for bearing a grudge.”

Mick Herron has sidestepped the inevitable question of how he knows so much about spies. His birth year isn’t online and his Wikipedia entry is only in French. But better than any insider knowledge, he brings a fine-grained intelligence to bear on every detail he describes. These novels are a part of English literature, not only the genre of spy novels.

Jane for Moderns (Curtis Sittenfeld’s “Eligible”)

Monday, June 6th, 2016

Originally published in The Weekly Standard, June 6 (

Jane for Moderns
In translating ‘Pride and Prejudice’ it helps to understand it.

Jun 06, 2016 | By Ann Marlowe

Eligible is one of more than a hundred reworkings of Pride and Prejudice listed on Goodreads and it’s part of a recent publishing enterprise, The Austen Project, which has paired six Austen novels with six contemporary novelists. (None of the four released so far has been a critical success.) When a novel is fair game for retelling, it’s entered a special domain, where the bar is both higher and lower than other fiction. On the one hand, no one can cavil with the basic premise; on the other, you had better be able to add something fresh.

In some respects, Curtis Sittenfeld had an easy task: Pride and Prejudice (1813) is the most mythic of Austen’s novels, echoing Cinderella (the sisters and the high-born suitor who chooses the hidden gem) and Much Ado About Nothing (the witty, bickering lovers). In a poll a dozen years ago it was chosen the second-best-loved novel in Great Britain, after The Lord of the Rings. But the problems with Eligible are the author’s lack of passion for the story and the quality of her prose, which are surely related. Jane Austen’s novel is structured in 61 short chapters and tallies just 99,000 words. Eligible takes 181 chapters to retell the story, and all too many are the writerly equivalent of those cardboard-like rice cakes some well-meaning parents feed their toddlers.

Maybe Curtis Sittenfeld wasn’t a natural choice for this task. Prep, the only one of her four previous novels I’ve read, is a big, thumping, maximalist book whose strength is its immediacy and devastating social detail. Still, a voluble, underedited take on Pride and Prejudice could have worked if it were as heartfelt and energetic as Prep. But something has gone very wrong here. Perhaps Sittenfeld believed she was echoing Austen’s formality and precision, but there is a lot of clumsy, unlovable exposition in Eligible. She misunderstands the cadence of Austen’s sentences, which were Latinate, and the art of using long clauses gracefully eludes her:

The eldest and second eldest of the five Bennet sisters had lived in New York for the last decade and a half; it was due to their father’s health scare that they had abruptly, if temporarily, returned to Cincinnati.

.  .  . Almost immediately, a maelstrom of activity was swirling. The following evening, while it was still afternoon in Los Angeles, Liz, Jane, and Chip participated via speakerphone from Liz’s apartment in a conversation with both Chip’s agent, whose name was David Scanlon, and the Eligible producer with whom Chip had discussed Jane, whose name was Anne Lee.

The dialogue is a little better, but the author doesn’t seem sufficiently engaged with her characters, who in Pride and Prejudice are mainly revealed through speech. Sittenfeld does good, if not particularly imaginative, work with Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, and is best at reimagining the sullen, studious sister Mary—though she stops short of the kind of sympathy that would have opened up the novel in a new way. Jane remains the lovely cipher she is in the original. Lizzie is the big problem here: literal and rude without being funny, pedestrian without the original’s refreshing, down-to-earth sensibility. When the original Lizzie Bennet banters with Fitzwilliam Darcy, she’s like a good psychoanalyst speaking with a patient. She takes up and makes him hear the absurdities and neuroses in his speech.

Changing, or eliminating, minor characters in a rewrite or adaptation for film can be like randomly yanking a part out of a car engine. More than you’d guess goes wrong when Sittenfeld transforms Darcy’s aunt (Lady Catherine de Bourgh) into a celebrated feminist thinker, modeled on Gloria Steinem, who plays no role in the Liz/Darcy romance and has nothing to do with Mister Collins. Indeed, we lose the dark humor of Mister Collins’s flattery of his patroness and the sense of misery in Charlotte Lucas’s marriage. We also lose an articulation of the opposition to the Liz/Darcy union, which scarcely exists in Sittenfeld’s version.

There’s something else. Lady Catherine de Bourgh functions in the original as a counterweight to Lizzie, an example of a brave, intelligent woman, prohibited from a career, who turns her considerable abilities to trivial targets and contemptible ends. In the incendiary final confrontation between Lady Catherine and Elizabeth Bennet, where Lizzie trounces the older woman’s insistence on aristocratic order and arranged marriages with ruthless, lawyerly logic, Jane Austen forces her heroine’s hand and creates an extraordinary moment in cultural history: “I have not been used to submit to any person’s whims. I have not been in the habit of brooking disappointment. .  .  . That will make your ladyship’s situation at present more pitiable; but it will have no effect on me.”

When Lizzie concludes—”I am only resolved to act in that manner, which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to any person so wholly unconnected with me”—we hear the spirit that runs through the Declaration of Independence, which was just 37 years old when Austen published. Curtis Sittenfeld may feel we live in degraded times, and her use of the culture of reality TV to frame her retelling is doubtless meant by way of criticism. But Pride and Prejudice is not a cynical book; it’s a revolutionary book, and a rewrite that doesn’t capture, and renew, its earnestness isn’t worthy of the name.