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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Slow Horses

Mick Herron

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To purchase Slow Horses

Title: Slow Horses
Author: Mick Herron
Genre: Novel
Written: 2010
Length: 339 pages
Availability: Slow Horses - US
Slow Horses - UK
Slow Horses - Canada
La maison des tocards - France
Slow Horses - Deutschland
Slow Horses - Italia
Caballos lentos - España
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • The first in the Slough House series
  • Slow Horses has been made into a TV miniseries that began airing in 2022, starring Gary Oldman and Kristin Scott Thomas

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Our Assessment:

B+ : neat spin on the usual spy-thriller; well done

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Publishers Weekly . 26/4/2010 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "Herron avoids the easy cliché of misfits banding together to right a wrong, instead painting his slow horses as complex characters who are just as fallible as their “faster” counterparts." - Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Slow Horses is the first in a now-extensive series of novels (and some stories) featuring 'Slough House', a "crackpot palace" where British MI5 agents who have tripped up in their career -- generally in somewhat spectacular or problematic form -- are sent, a place where (so the idea) they are far from pretty much any action and hence can't mess anything else up. The keep-busy kind of work they're tasked with is of the sort whose main purpose seems to be to bore or frustrate them sufficiently so that they'll simply quit -- the kind of work that, as one of them observes: "could be done by a bunch of trained monkeys". Slough House is run by Jackson Lamb; the reason he has been shunted off there is not clear.
       Slow Horses begins with: "how River Cartwright slipped off the fast track and joined the slow horses", a failure that seems to have had truly catastrophic consequences. In fact, things fortunately did not go as spectacularly wrong as the first impression suggests -- but River did slip up badly, and it's more than enough to pretty much destroy his career. (River is, in fact, convinced that the slip-up wasn't really his, and that he was actually set up -- a lingering question that continues to play a role in the story.)
       River comes with a secret service pedigree, raised by a grandfather, David Cartwright, 'the O.B.', who was clearly an old hand in the game. (Possibly, too, he still exerted enough influence that River wasn't simply fired for his mistake.)
       The July 2005 bomb attacks in London still resonate strongly here -- "No one had joined the Service since the bombs without the bombs being part of the reason" -- and contribute to the strong reaction to the events at the heart of the novel, things set in motion when an internet broadcast of a hooded man appears, with the claim that he would be beheaded in forty-eight hours time. The immediate thought is that Al-Qaeda -- or at least a fanatic group of similar bent -- is behind it, but as with the account of River's mess-up, Herron soon reveals things aren't quite what they seem. In this case, that continues on several levels -- beginning with the fact that the victim is from a family with Pakistani origins and the hostage-takers a (previously practically unknown) ultra-nationalist English group, Voice of Albion. Herron presents what's ultimately a very neat set-up -- which, for his purposes, also proves too clever by half, the whole thing promising to become a disaster for MI5 as things go south. But there's Slough House to conveniently put the blame on .....
       A Second Desk at MI5 is headed by the very ambitious Diana Taverner -- also known as 'Lady Di' -, running ops -- operations -- from headquarters at Regent's Park. Taverner's big plans go awry, and soon enough she's trying just as hard to pin the blame on Slough House as she is trying to actually save the poor hostage, whose life is, in fact, very much in danger. Lamb, however, doesn't take it sitting down, and goes on the counter-offensive -- even if all he has to work with are, basically, the slow horses under him.
       The Slough House gang do prove to have some talents, and manage to piece together what is going on -- though that also makes them realize just how bad their position is regarding all this. At least they're in the thick of things, playing at being real spies: "Things were happening. They weren't on the sidelines any more". Can they save the day -- and their hides and what's left of their careers ? Well, it's the first in a now long-running series, so it's not really a surprise that they at least muddle through -- with Herron's resolution a satisfying one where things work out but only after a fashion. Certainly, the groundwork for a continuing rivalry between Regent's Park and Slough House, and the two strong personalities of Lamb and Taverner, both of whom can clearly get away with quite a bit, is nicely set.
       Slow Horses takes a bit of warming up to, especially once River is installed at Slough House, as Herron jerks the narrative around to (slowly) introduce the various other figures there -- and then also switches back and forth to the hostage and his situation. Once the basic pieces are in place, however, the novel takes off very nicely, and much of it is a first-rate thriller.
       Disappointingly, Herron does resort to a few far too tired tricks and devices, notably in withholding information from the reader. That works, situation wise -- first with River's spectacular misstep, and then with the hostage-situation -- but is irritating when it gets to specifics, specifically at one point when Rivers, after it gnawing at his mind for a while, finally realizes -- and announces -- about one of those involved: "I've just remembered where I saw him" -- with Herron immediately moving on to the next scene without revealing that information. Worse yet is when Rivers and Lamb discuss how to proceed, and:

     "And supposing I don't get caught ? What am I supposed to do ?"
     Lamb told him.
       And cut. Lamb told him, but Herron doesn't tell the reader -- a device so over-used that one really never wants to come across it again.
       Mostly, however, Herron does a neat job. If he's still working on getting the tone down right, he manages quite well, especially in balancing the comic and the serious. He resists the temptation of broadest comedy; indeed, Slow Horses is quite convincing as actual spy fiction. The cast of characters is also solid -- though Herron clearly is biding some time here, too, leaving character build-up also for future volumes in the series. But it's a promising start.
       An enjoyable twist on the usual spy thriller, with some of it really very well done.

- M.A.Orthofer, 22 December 2022

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Slow Horses: Reviews: Slow Horses - the TV miniseries: Mick Herron: Other books by Mick Herron under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       British author Mick Herron was born in 1963.

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© 2022-2023 the complete review

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