“Slow Horses” is a (very) British spy thriller, set in contemporary London, in the post 7/7 bombing world of domestic anti-terrorism.
The slow horses of the title are security service people who have messed up and have been cut out of the herd of thoroughbreds with whom they’ve demonstrated they can’t keep up. Their punishment is being sent to work at Slough House where they are given pointless routine work that is meant to demoralize them to the point where they will resign and save the Service the trouble of firing them.
This is a depressingly plausible situation. The Civil Service call this, nugatory work, i.e. work that is known to have no value.
Slough House is run as a fiefdom by Jackson Lamb, a mercurial despot with a reputation as a dangerous field agent. Discovering why he is there and what he wants is one of the mysteries of the book. His staff are a mixed bunch but it soon becomes clear that some of them are not what they seem. In the world that these folks inhabit, little is what it seems.
The plot revolves around the abduction and threatened execution of a boy of Pakistani descent by a group of right wing nationalist extremists. This takes us into BNP, EDL deluded English Nazis.
“Slow Horses” was published in 2010 and now seems rather horribly prescient. At one point, a right wing journalist (imagine that) is talking to a Tory cabinet minister who presents himself as a bumbling fool but is actually a driving force for English nationalism (not hard to imagine who that character could be based on, The journalist says:
‘Because we both know the tide’s turning. The decent people in this country are sick to death of being held hostage by mad liberals in Brussels, and the sooner we take control over our own future, our own borders …
Given that this predates the Brexit debacle by half a decade, that’s a little scary.
The plot is cunning without ever becoming Byzantine. The storytelling keeps the tension cranked up and throws in lots of surprises. The characters and how they interact with each other are credible and compelling. This is Le Carré for the modern day, with a faster pace and a new set of issues.
“Slow Horses” is a good thriller made exceptional by the plausibility of the people and the situations. It seems like an insider’s view. As one of the retired Service guys says of Le Carré in this book, “Just because it’s made up doesn’t mean it’s not true.
“Slow Horses” is the first in a series of Slough House novels. All of them are now on my “must read” list.