Horrified, but not surprised
Seeing into the future with Slough House series author Mick Herron.
January 4, 2021
The Slough House series is centered on the misanthropic Jackson Lamb and his menagerie of failed spies. How did you come up with this MI5 silo of castoffs and misfits?
MH: It was something I arrived at from several directions. I wanted to have a larger cast of characters than I’d been used to (my Oxford-set mystery series focused on one or two individuals); I wanted to write about failures, rather than super-efficient heroic types; I wanted to write about political shifts and national situations rather than the domestic. In fact, it was finding the location—near to where I was working at the time—that opened the door. The characters emerged to fill that space. That they turned out to be spies rather than civil servants, or police officers, or military types, was pretty much inevitable; writing about spooks gave me the freedom to make up my own rules rather than observe the regulations that govern the actions of most other public bodies. One interesting side effect of this has been that many readers assume I’ve been a spy, because “I know so much about that world.” In fact, the reason I know so much about it is that the parts I haven’t borrowed from other sources—books, movies—I’ve made up.
Jackson Lamb is a singular invention. Overweight. Flatulent. Mean. Endlessly cunning. He is the antithesis of nearly every British espionage hero and yet he steals every scene. What made you want to write the opposite of Bond and Smiley?
If I could have written George Smiley, I would have done . . . Lamb’s outward grossness is there to provide a mask for his past, a past I’ve never investigated in depth. But the behavior he exhibits is clearly born of a mixture of contempt for the world that he’s moved in all his adult life, and a certain amount of self-loathing for having been a part of that world. Allowing him to indulge his contempt is a way of highlighting the mysteries of his past: what on earth happened to him to make him this way? It provides gravity for the series as a whole. So the underlying joke, really, is that Lamb must have been a Bond, a Smiley, a hero of some sort, at one point of his life, but has seen through all of that, and reacted against it, to become what he is. He’s not really an opposite. He’s just come through the other side.
In the series debut Slow Horses, which was first published in 2010, you described a world in which the Slough House crew have to foil a white supremacist terrorist plot. At the time, the plot was unexpected—it has since proven to be prescient. Have you been surprised by the unfolding of white nationalism over the last decade, or is Slow Horses proof that you saw the writing on the wall?
Horrified, but not surprised. I didn’t think the plot of Slow Horses too unexpected; it seemed to me a logical progression from where we were at the time. While I was writing that novel, the world was still clawing its way through the economic meltdown of 2008. Such times always result in the eruption of the usual hatreds, for reasons too obvious for me to set down here. It certainly wasn’t a matter of my reading what the future held. If anything, it was the opposite; I was looking back at what happened in the 1980s.
In your new novel, Slough House, your focus is on the privatization of national security. MI5 is on sale to the highest bidders, including multimillionaires and media moguls looking to politicize government information. Is this happening? Is this something you think Britons should be worried about?
If it’s not already happening, it probably will be soon. But that’s my take on the situation having finished the book; at the time of writing, I wasn’t aiming to deliver a warning or make a prediction. When plotting a novel, I simply look at what’s going on in the world and slightly bend it to my own use. And however dim a view I take, events generally conspire to make me think I should have bent it more.
Your novels balance these weighty and sometimes scary sociopolitical matters with wit and genuinely funny humor. Did you feel the need to strike a balance?
It’s not something I try to force. I used to think that the humor of the books largely resides in the characters and their reactions to situations, and in the dialogue, particularly when they’re squabbling. Lately, I’ve come to realize that there’s also humor, of a particularly grim nature, to be found in poking away at those scary sociopolitical matters you mention. This could be described as satire, if you’re feeling generous, though I’ve never been sure that laughing at the often ludicrous, frequently contemptible actions of those in power amounts to much more than spitting in the wind. Sooner this than go along with it, though.
Apple TV+ is developing the first two books (Slow Horses, Dead Lions) for a series. The books have won nearly every major crime fiction prize in the UK. Ten years ago, could you have imagined where the slow horses would end up?
Not even remotely. At the time of writing Slow Horses, I didn’t have a large readership, though this in itself was liberating. It gave me the freedom to take risks I might not have taken if I’d had an audience to alienate (By the time a readership caught up with me, as it were, I was writing the fourth novel, Spook Street: the characters, and the general mood of the series, were firmly established by then, and I didn’t worry about reining in my more outlandish tendencies). But it still pulls me up when I take stock. It’s a privilege to have a readership, and the existence of that readership has brought big changes in the past few years. What makes me happiest, though, is what hasn’t changed, which is the pleasure I still take in the work itself. So far, every book has brought a new set of challenges, and completing each has left me eager to start the next. Where the slow horses have ended up, of course, is exactly where they began, in Slough House. It’s my job, and remains my joy, to keep them occupied there.