This week we sent in one of our top field agents David Craggs, to talk with Crime Writer’s Association winner Mick Herron, about his ‘Slough House’ series of spy novels. Mick’s rise to the top of spy fiction aficionados reading pile is remarkable, so we wanted to find out what his secrets are, if indeed he could be broken.
For literary spy aficionados, the phrase ‘ the natural successor to Ian Fleming’ normally heralds the arrival of another pale imitation. Equally ominous are sacrilegious comparisons with Len Deighton or John Le Carre.
As a sexagenarian spy addict who was brought up on the greats, I’ve long ago learnt that any book carrying the aforementioned claims should be avoided like Ondine’s curse.
So often the comparisons turn out to be the literary equivalent of comparing Justin Bieber to Miles Davis. Some people claim they both make music but those of us with unimpaired hearing know that this just isn’t true.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some good thriller writers working today in the spy genre but they’re thin on the ground. Many of the good ones tend to write within a historical context. Modern espionage fiction is not what it once was.
Maybe the fact that the real spy world is now a team game with secret services conducting wars more with technology than field operatives, has contributed to rendering some of the traditional tropes of the contemporary spy thriller redundant. Lone agents fighting to save the world have simply lost their relevance.
This was my hypothesis when a couple of years ago, in Hatchards of Piccadilly, I picked up a copy of a novel titled ‘Slow Horses’ by an unknown new author, Mick Herron.
I was reading the cover when a hip young bookseller floated by and whispered; ‘ I’ve read that and it’s simply amazing. It is just so cool’.
Cool ,for me, is an adjective that should be reserved for describing Roxy Music or Steve McQueen but anything that would grant a man of my advancing years associate membership of the lithe blond bookseller’s literary circle had to be purchased.
I started to read it on the train home to Farnham. By the time I’d got to Woking I’d become a hard-core Herron addict and was recommending it to strangers sat opposite. I hadn’t been so intoxicated since I’d first picked up Ian Fleming’s ‘Casino Royale’ or Len Deighton’s ‘Ipcress File’. Here at last was the real deal for our times.
‘Slow Horses’ was new, different and better. It had me metaphorically gripping my arm rests whilst laughing and sighing aloud. My new blond friend was correct, it was achingly cool and at last comparisons with the greats was thoroughly deserved.
‘Thank God for Mick Herron’ I thought – he’s single handedly revitalised the modern spy thriller.
What sets Herron’s work apart that has made him succeed were so many others have floundered or stagnated ?
Well, it has to be said, his central premise is genius:
Although marketed as ‘Jackson Lamb Thrillers’, his works are actually ensemble pieces featuring a group of failed MI5 spooks that have been banished to ‘Slough House’. There they are obliged to see out their time as ‘Slow Horses’ doing mind numbing tasks. MI5 can’t afford the publicity associated with industrial tribunals and this is their way of disposing of their problem children.
Ironically, ‘Slough House’ itself is not in Slough, it’s actually near The Barbican. The building’s name is designed to further insult the ‘Slow Horses’. Those who have been exiled from Regent’s Park and who dream of returning to MI5’s prestigious HQ.
Herron’s ‘Slow Horses’ are a dysfunctional band of miscreants that have been consigned to their fate for various crimes of drugs and drunkenness, lechery and failure, politics and betrayal. Some crimes real. Some crimes imagined or trumped up. Behind all of their misdeeds they remain highly trained ‘Joes’ with individual specialities.
Once designated ‘Slow Horses’ they are obliged to work under the guidance of the aforementioned Jackson Lamb. A thoroughly despicable human being with a range of disgusting personal habits that would make Chaucer blanch.
Lamb views ‘Slough House’ as his own personal fiefdom and rules with a rod of iron. He mentally tortures his subordinates at whim but woe betide any outsiders who try to take the same liberties. These are his ‘Joes’ and they do his bidding. At least, that’s the theory.
It is against this backdrop that Herron launches plots that are quite literally ripped from today’s headlines. In ‘Slow Horses’, a boy is kidnapped and held hostage. His beheading is scheduled for live broadcast on the internet. Lamb’s miscreants aren’t simply going to just let this happen. This could be their opportunity to redeem themselves ……
‘Slow Horses’ was originally released in 2010 but unfortunately a publishing hiatus interfered with the launch and Herron was left without a contract. Those involved should hang their heads in shame. It was the literary equivalent of rejecting The Beatles!
A new publisher was sought and after the publication of the second in the series, both books started to garner critical kudos and to develop a cult following. The serious press became unanimous in their acclaim but it was probably the Daily Telegraph that perhaps summed it up best when they said;
‘Herron’s casual observations are beautifully phrased…With his poet’s eye for detail, his comic timing and relish for violence, Herron fills a gap that has been yawning ever since Len Deighton retired.’
Comparisons with Fleming, Deighton and Le Carre are inevitable. Herron is equally as exciting as Fleming, as hip as Deighton and as literate and politically aware as Le Carre.
Furthermore, he avoids completely the trap of the high brow thriller. That is to say the more literary a story is, the less thrilling it can be. Herron writes literary thrillers that rock. That are populated with characters with whom, despite their flaws, we can relate. That said, be careful who you get attached to. They won’t all make it. There’s nothing remotely formulaic here!
These are spy thrillers for the ’Breaking Bad’ generation. Something that will compete with your time as intrusively as ‘Game Of Thrones’.
Since ‘Slow Horses’, Herron hasn’t put a foot wrong. He’s written three more Jackson Lamb thrillers (‘Dead Lions’,’Real Tigers’, and ‘Spook Street’ ). A standalone (‘Nobody Walks’) and a novella (‘ The List’). All share some of the same characters.
He won the Crime Writers’ Association 2013 Gold Dagger for ‘Dead Lions’ and his latest, ‘Spook Street’ has been nominated for both the 2017 CWA Gold Dagger and the 2017 Ian Fleming Silver Dagger.
As the UK’s Waterstones have made the first in the series, ‘Slow Horses’, their book of the month for August, there seemed no time like the present to find out more about the man whom The Mail on Sunday have now christened ‘The New King Of The Spy Thriller’.
I grabbed my Artistic Licence Renewed press pass and set off for a secret rendezvous with Herron.
We’d arranged to have lunch at Branca in Oxford’s hip Jericho area. I allowed plenty of time for the journey. Being a Herron addict makes you paranoid. Such is the realism of his work, you find yourself constantly checking to ensure that ‘The Stoats’ don’t have you under surveillance. This can lead to real trouble in Mick’s secret world. I took the precaution of removing my sim card before setting off.
Arriving slightly early, I recognised him approaching the restaurant. He entered through the glass door after checking that he was surveillance free.
I’d organised a discreet table at the back. He immediately scrutinised my pass and after seeing that it was authentic he relaxed.
We had a convivial lunch during which we put the thriller world, past and present, to rights.
Then we got down to the serious business of the Herron specific Q & A :
Mick, growing up in Newcastle Upon Tyne, what stimulated your interest in literature and what was the first book you remember reading ?
My mother was a nursery school teacher. Both her and my father encouraged me to read.
We didn’t have a TV in the house when I was very young and some of my earliest memories of reading involved Enid Blyton’s books and stories about King Arthur. I was always hungry for stories. When I got older I can remember my dad giving Ross McDonald books.
My mum still encourages me a lot and she goes into Waterstones in Newcastle to merchandise my stuff. Happily she reported that Slow Horses is number one this week !
What was the first thriller you ever read ?
Doubtless it was something by Agatha Christie or Alistair Maclean. I liked Maclean’s early books a lot. To a youngster they were truly thrilling.
Who were the thriller writers that have most influenced you ?
Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith remains the gold standard. I buy everything from this guy as soon as it comes out.
At what age did you start writing yourself ?
I’ve been writing since I was a teenager. I wrote poetry and only turned to novels when the poetry dried up. I’ve been writing every day since.
You studied English Literature at Ballliol College Oxford. To what extent did your degree studies influence and enhance your writing abilities?
It didn’t really improve my writing but it put me in touch with the works of phenomenal writers – Austen, Dickens, and so on.
Leaving university, what career did you pursue?
I became a sub editor. Something I did for over fifteen years. This taught me a lot about writing. Very specifically the words to leave out . I was writing 350 words a night at the same time as commuting into London to do my day job.
Your first published novels were crime thrillers featuring two female protagonists – what took you in that direction ?
I am always fascinated by ordinary life that gets involved with something extraordinary and the crime thriller seemed a great vehicle to make that happen.
What made you switch ‘Horses’ and start to write spy stories ?
The events surrounding 7/7 influenced me enormously. That event and the desire to write an ensemble piece got me contemplating the transition. Then, I got to thinking, I wonder what MI5 do with their discredited spies?
In my opinion, your books are really ensemble pieces and are all the stronger for that. They are however marketed as ‘Jackson Lamb’ thrillers and it is true that he is the constant. That said, he is also probably the most despicable character I’ve ever come across. How did you develop him? Please tell me he isn’t based on anybody you know?
No, thank God, he isn’t based on anybody. He is really my vehicle to be completely and utterly politically incorrect. When he’s in a situation, I think about what is the worst possible thing that anybody could say or do, then I have Jackson do it. He is a great excuse for me to write that type of dialogue. He was originally intended to be quite a small character in the whole thing but his role has developed.
The plots of your Slough House books are as tight as a duck’s proverbial. Do you know exactly where you are going when you start a book ?
Actually, with the exception of a couple of my stand alone novels, I almost always start my books with the characters and go from there. The plot evolves.
Elements of your work remind me of Deighton when he was in his pomp. I’m referring specifically to dialogue and irreverent humour. Who did you study to hone this skill or is it something that lies within you?
Writing dialogue started out as the most difficult thing but then actually became the easiest. Of course, I’ve read great dialogue writers. The likes of Elmore Leonard for example.
Your descriptions are quite beautiful. London in particular resonates for me. Is there any author that you particularly admire for their descriptive prowess ?
Thank you. I try to write about places I know really well. I know London. This helps me enormously.
Have you considered spinning off any of your ‘Slow Horses’ into their own projects ?
I wouldn’t do that. The beauty of an ensemble piece is that you can focus on any character you want and then quickly go in another direction.
Are there any plans to bring those ‘Slough House’ reprobates to the big or small screen?
I’ve sold the option for ‘Slow Horses’. A script has been developed but progress in that world is glacial.
Will any of the ‘Slow Horses’ ever make their way back to Regent’s Park or is it a one way ticket ?
Redemption is unlikely. Unhappy people are more fun to write about!
I understand that Jackson Lamb No.5 will be out next year and that you’ve also been working on another stand alone ?
Correct. The new Jackson Lamb is called ‘London Rules’ and will be released in the UK next February with my standalone which is called ‘This Is What Happened’ will be published some time after that. My American publisher is launching them the other way around.
Your last stand alone ‘Nobody Walks’ had a markedly different style. It reminded me of the, late great, Ted Lewis. Have you read Lewis? What encouraged you to go in this more ‘noir’ direction ?
How bizarre that you say that. My American publisher at Soho Press is a Lewis buff and made exactly the same observation. Coincidentally, they also publish Lewis’s work.
Although I did read ‘Get Carter’ some years ago and consider it a great book, I didn’t write ‘Nobody Walks’ as an homage to Ted. Albeit, I did make a conscious effort to write it in a more paired down style.
Of the writers working today in the spy thriller genre, who do you most admire?
I like a lot the work of both Alan Judd and John Lawton. There are others I like but they are the two who spring immediately to mind.
If you have one, can you share your daily writing routine ?
Since going full time this year, I haven’t really established one. I do however write every day and manage between 900 to 1200 words. I’ve also discovered that I’m better in the mornings but, it’s a process.
When you aren’t writing, what do you like doing?
I’m a big music fan and love jazz. Keith Jarrett is one of my favourites. I also like walking and cricket.
As you know, Artistic Licence love to know feelings on Fleming so here are some quick fire Bond questions for you :
Which is your favourite Bond novel and why ?
Moonraker – I loved the English setting and the premise.
Which is your least favourite Bond book and why ?
Live & Let Die – I know it is ‘of its time’ but I found the casual racism and sexism difficult to take.
Who is your favourite Bond villain?
Grant in From Russia With Love. I like the way Fleming tells his back story.
Who is your favourite Fleming femme fatale?
Gala Brand, the beautiful Special Branch officer in Moonraker. I like that she is a strong career woman and that Bond doesn’t get his own way.
Which is your favourite Chopping Bond cover art ?
The Man With The Golden Gun is a great jacket design. I like the wrap around design and the fly looks better than ever.
What do you most admire about Fleming’s work ?
The titles. I think they are phenomenal and I can’t think of another series of books with such strong names.
Who is your favourite screen Bond ?
Sean Connery is my favourite but I think Craig did a good job in ‘Casino Royale’.
Which is your favourite Bond film ?
The Bond questions concluded my extremely pleasant lunch with Mick Herron and, I have to say, not only is the new ‘King Of The Spy Thriller’ extremely talented he is also a hell of a nice guy.
It was raining as we left the restaurant and I offered Mick a lift. He declined politely and said he preferred to walk his lunch off. Personally I think he finds it easier to shake surveillance on foot. I did notice that he rather nervously checked over his shoulder.
Jackson Lamb and ‘The Stoats’ get everywhere and nobody would want to bump into them on a dark night.
Our reporter returned to the Surrey Hills were he is safely ensconced in his cottage. He awaits his next Herron fix – ‘London Rules’ to be published in February 2018. He wasn’t followed.
Mick Herron appears at Waterstones, London – Gower Street on Tuesday 8h August when he will talk with the Telegraph’s critic, Jake Kerridge, about John Le Carre’s 2003 thriller, Absolute Friends. Buy tickets here.