Slough Saga: not your father’s MI5

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.

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