Slow Horses by Mick Herron

May 26, 2022

Slough House is the outpost where disgraced spies are banished to see out the rest of their derailed careers. Known as the ‘slow horses’ these misfits have committed crimes of drugs and drunkenness, lechery and failure, politics and betrayal while on duty.

In this drab and mildewed office these highly trained spies don’t run ops, they push paper. Not one of them joined the Intelligence Service to be a slow horse and the one thing they have in common is they want to be back in the action.

When a boy is kidnapped and held hostage, his beheading is scheduled for live broadcast on the net. And whatever the instructions of their masters at the Intelligence Service headquarters, the slow horses aren’t going to just sit quiet and watch.

I’ve gone totally off-piste this week and thrown my review schedule completely out the windows. To Hell with new releases; for a change, I’ve decided to jot down some words about a book I read purely for the pleasure of reading it. I’d heard nothing but good things about a new television drama series called Slow Horses so I thought I would give it a go. Good news kids, it is truly exceptional. So much so that when I learned it was based on a novel of the same name by Mick Herron, I decided I had to check it out.

The premise couldn’t be simpler. A demotion to Slough House means you’re an embarrassment to the bosses in the intelligence community. Rather than being fired, you are sent to career Purgatory. Should you decide to leave, causing the minimum of fuss along the way, that would be ideal. When a kidnap plot goes sideways and a scapegoat is required, Jackson Lamb and his errant band of inept agents are drawn into the swiftly escalating situation. The “slow horses” are expendable, someone needs to be on hand to take the blame should it be deemed necessary.

Lamb is a wonderful literary creation, the very best of cantankerous sods. Slough House might be a dead-end but there still has to be a boss. Like a clandestine vagabond, he prowls the corridors of his little fiefdom causing all manner of misery and offence. Lamb’s shabby exterior belies a keen analytical mind. You wouldn’t think it for a moment, but there are wheels constantly turning in that whip-smart brain of his. Lamb has an old school Cold War sensibility when it comes to tradecraft. In this first novel, you never discover why he is the head of Slough House. I can only imagine it is something truly outrageous. I’ll read the rest of the novels in the series just for the opportunity to find out. 

The other denizens of Slough House are just as screwed up as their glorious leader. They are a veritable who’s who of misfits and platinum rogues. Needless to say, I immediately warmed to them all, even those with no discernible people skills*. 

As an aside, on-screen, Gary Oldman is damn near perfect as Jackson Lamb. He nails it in every single scene. It pleases me to confirm that in relation to the novel, the television adaptation is flawless. Entire scenes are lifted directly from the book. I spotted some infinitesimal changes regarding secondary characters, but they make less than zero difference to the overall narrative. I was delighted to recently discover that the second novel, Dead Lions**, has already been filmed. 

There are loads of little details that help to flesh out the world the horses inhabit. I really appreciate this level of attention. For example, Herron peppers the chapters with shorthand for the different departments that make up the intelligence service. Their various nicknames all sound like exactly the sort of thing you would expect to evolve over time. 

Slow Horses is a joy. There is almost a whimsical feel to the novel, well as whimsical as a spy novel can get anyway. Hmm, perhaps nostalgic is a better term. Jackson Lamb is very much in the autumn of his career. He is a throwback to a different era but there is life in this old warhorse yet. Long may these novels continue. I feel I can confidently state that I will be reading them all.

Slow Horses is published by John Murray Press. In addition, there are currently another seven Slough House novels available.   

My musical recommendation to accompany the novel really couldn’t be anything other than Daniel Pemberton’s soundtrack to the tv show. Highlights include rock and rolls seemingly immortal randy old goat Mick Jagger offering a louche marvel entitled Strange Game. It has a blissfully down at heel tone that captures the lives of the slow horses perfectly.

*I’m looking at you Roderick Ho.

**I bought the first six novels as a box set and I’m reading this at the moment. 



  • russell1200 June 1, 2022 at 1:09 pm

    I have read all but the novellas. Which I have, but have misplaced.

    One should be warned not to get too attached to particular characters. Survival rates at Slough House are pretty low for a supposed backwater.

  • russell1200 August 8, 2022 at 1:19 pm

    I just read the latest in the series “Bad Actors” – which the author explains has nothing to do with the acting in the show – and found it thoroughly enjoyable. I forced myself not to rush through so I could know what was going to happen. I should probably reread the series as I do tend to rush through them too fast.

  • Mark February 29, 2024 at 2:50 pm

    Thanks for your little review, which I found trying to ascertain if the Tolkien references in seasons 2 and 3 were put in by the screenplay writers or came from the books. The first one I noticed was when River asked the taxi driver if he had gotten a second breakfast, and then there were more in season 3 by the archivist at the ‘facility’. I am about to start the Slough House books, haven read already one of Herron’s stand alone novels as a primer.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *