With writing that is cool, sly and funny, Mick Herron gives us world-weary M15 spies that are more in Smiley territory than James Bond's. Every character in Herron's Slough House is complicated and dynamic. Read it for the plot. Read it for the spy craft. Savor the story. Herron's world is riveting.
“This is a darker, scarier Herron. The gags are still there but the satire's more biting. The privatization of a secret service op and the manipulation of news is relevant and horribly credible.”—Ann Cleeves, author of the Vera Stanhope series
At Slough House—MI5’s London depository for demoted spies—Brexit has taken a toll. The “slow horses” have been pushed further into the cold, Slough House has been erased from official records, and its members are dying in unusual circumstances, at an unusual clip. No wonder Jackson Lamb's crew is feeling paranoid. But are they actually targets?
With a new populist movement taking hold of London's streets and the old order ensuring that everything's for sale to the highest bidder, the world's a dangerous place for those deemed surplus. Jackson Lamb and the slow horses are in a fight for their lives as they navigate dizzying layers of lies, power, and death.
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Let’s be honest. Frontal aspect, first reaction: it’s not the best-looking property on the market.
But consider the potential.
Conveniently located above a Chinese restaurant and a newsagent whose enterprises occupy the ground-floorage, these upper three storeys present a rare opportunity to acquire a toehold in this up-and-coming area. (Nice little mention in the Mail not long ago. Not the property pages, but still.) East-facing, but sheltered from morning dazzle by an imposing view of the iconic Barbican Centre, and offered further protection by being on Aldersgate Street, in the London borough of Finsbury, renowned for its temperate climate. Traffic calmed by nearby lights; buses a regular fixture. And the Tube on the doorstep, with the popular Hammersmith & City, Circle and Metropolitan lines literally a minute away.
The front door’s not in use but never mind. We’ll go round the back.
To this nicely low-maintenance yard, with ample room for wheelie-bins and broken furniture. Ignore the smell, that’s a temporary blockage. Through this back door, sticking a bit today—doesn’t usually do that—but a bit of shoulder work and Bob’s your uncle. Then up the stairs, but best not put weight on that banister. It’s more ornamental than load-bearing. Original feature, mind.
And so we come to the first floor, a matching pair of offices, with a view of the heritage brickwork opposite. All unspoilt, very much on-plan. Notice the fixtures and fittings. Authentic period detail there, and the ’70s is a decade that’s coming back, isn’t it, what with the riots, the recession, the racism—ha! Our little joke. But no, really. Nice lick of paint, put your own stamp on it. Splash of yellow, splash of grey. Nothing like a touch of colour to bring out the natural warmth of a room.
But time’s wingèd chariot, eh? Onwards and upwards, onwards and upwards.
Which means another flight of stairs, a little cardio-workout. That’s not damp on the plasterwork, just the discolouration you get with age. Two more offices on this level, plus a compact kitchen: bit of surface area for your kettle and your microwave, storage space for your crockery and whatnot. Washer needs a tighten, but that’s easily sorted. Your facilities through here, and—oh. Eco-conscious, the previous user. Just give it a flush.
And up we go to the final two offices. Crying out to be bedroomed, our opinion. You’ve got your sloping roof, adds character, but leaves ample space to maximise your lifestyle requirements, once you look past the telephone directories and the overflowing ashtrays and the mess on the carpet there. Nothing a deep-clean won’t set to rights. Ideally the premises would be decluttered before a viewing, but access was an issue, apologies.
Window appears to be jammed shut too. But a quick minute with a screwdriver’ll see to that.
Anyway, there you have it. It’s quirky—little bit different—and benefits from a colourful history. A department of the secret service, though not an especially active one. Paperwork, we gather. Current occupants have been in possession for an eternity, though it probably feels longer. You’d think spies would have better things to do, but then again, maybe they were never the best sort of spy. Maybe that’s why they’re here in the first place.
But we can see you’re not convinced—it was the toilet, wasn’t it? —so maybe we should head west, where more traditional premises are available, over towards Regent’s Park. No, don’t worry about the door. Security’s never been a major concern here, which is a bit peculiar now we come to think of it.
Not that that’s our business—all that matters is getting this place off the books. But sooner or later, we’ll find a taker. That’s the thing about this line of work; the same in yours, we’ll be bound. The same the world over. When something’s for sale, eventually someone’ll buy it.
Just a matter of time, really.
Just a matter of time.
Looking for donor sperm? read the ad above her head.
Definitely not, though on the Central Line at rush hour, you couldn’t rule it out.
But for the moment, Louisa Guy hoped herself impregnable. She was jammed into a corner, true, but had her back to the enveloping mass, and her attention fixed on the door she was pressed against. In its reflection all became disjointed, like a 3D movie without the specs, but she could make out human features: blurred mouths lip-synching to music, faces shuttered against contact. While the chances of a stranger-on-stranger encounter turning nasty were rare—a million passenger journeys for every incident, said the stats—you’d hate to be the one to buck the trend. Take deep breaths. Don’t think about bad outcomes. And then they were at Oxford Circus, where the crowd split apart like murmurating starlings, her half spilling onto the platform, heading for exits.
She didn’t normally come into town after work. Her barhopping days were largely over, largely unregretted; shopping expeditions were for weekends; and cultural outings—theatre, museums, concerts—let’s face it, didn’t happen: she was a Londoner, not a bloody tourist. But she needed new trainers after a ten-mile outing in the rain last week; a stupid idea but she’d been having a bad day, thoughts of Emma Flyte refusing to leave her alone. You couldn’t run away from your memories, but you could tire yourself to the point where the details blurred. So anyway, the trainers had either shrunk or changed shape so fundamentally they belonged on different feet, which meant here she was, heading into town after work; the evenings lighter now the clocks had gone forward, but the air still bearing shades of winter. On the escalator, video ads encouraged her to rethink fundamental choices: change bank, change phone, change job. In a perfect world she’d have managed all three by the time she reached street-level.
Where the pavements were damp from rain. Louisa circumnavigated clumps of pedestrians, crossed Regent Street at a trot while the LED warned 3-2-1, and dipped into a sporting goods store, its neon logo a pale imitation of itself in the watery light, its tiled floor slick with grime. A yellow bollard exhorted her to take care. If she’d taken care, Emma Flyte would still be alive. But it was pointless to think such things; the clocks had gone forward since then, and only ever went so far back. Trainers were in the basement. She took an elevator again; she was always going up or down, it seemed. Always up or down.
On the back wall, running shoes were displayed like ranks of heads in Game of Thrones. As always there was a sale on, high-street retail being mostly zombie since You-Know-What, but even at reduced prices, trainers were mad. The ones that looked good were, anyway. And while the main thing about trainers was they had to feel right, not look good, still: they had to look good. So she picked the pair that most impressed on the wall, which proved nothing but was a sensible starting point, and sat and tried them on.
They felt okay. She walked up and down and they pinched a bit, more than when sitting, but it was hard to tell whether that was a new-shoe thing or a fitting issue. These places should have a treadmill. She flexed her leg to see if that helped, and noticed a guy noticing this—he was down the far end, examining a Nike—so did it again, and he kept on noticing, though studiously pretended not to. She crouched, and pressed the toe end of each trainer, checking for fit. He replaced the Nike on the wall and took a step back, his face a studied neutrality. Yeah, right, thought Louisa, awarding herself a mental high-five.
Still got it.
She sat again, removed the trainers. They cost more than she wanted to spend, and while that had rarely stopped her in the past, it would be an idea to try on a few more pairs first. As if agreeing with this notion, her mobile trembled in her pocket, and at precisely the same moment she heard a nearby ping—someone else’s phone registering an incoming text. It was the guy who’d been watching her, or pretending not to, and he stepped out of sight behind a rack of socks and wristbands, reaching into his jacket as he did so. Could’ve been a meet-cute, she thought, self-mockingly. Hey, simultaneous texts—what are the odds? And she reached for her own mobile while having the thought, and checked her message.
. . . Fuck!
Louisa leaped up, shoeless, and raced to the far wall, slipping a little, steadying herself by grabbing the rack, but he was gone already—was that him on the escalator? Taking the stairs two at a time, as if alerted to a sudden emergency—yeah, she thought. You and me both. There was no point following, not with nothing on her feet. He was out of sight now anyway; would be on the street, picking the busiest direction to disappear in.
Bastard, she thought. You sly cunning bastard.
And then thought: So what the hell’s going on here then?, as she padded back to her shoes, the wet floor working through her socks with every step.
If you didn’t count the text that pinged in five minutes ago, this was the first action River Cartwright’s phone had seen in days. He seriously needed to do something about his social life.
“. . . Mr. Cartwright?”
“It’s Jennifer Knox?”
River kept a mental list of the women he’d had contact with over the past few years, and it didn’t take long to scroll through. B—K was a blank.
“From next door to your grandfather’s?”
And that explained the senior wobble in her voice, which was a relief. Not that desperate, whatever anyone thought.
So “Of course” was what he now said. Jennifer Knox. A caller-in on the O.B.: supplier of casseroles and local gossip, though the visits had tailed off as the Old Bastard’s grasp on gossip and solids, and such fripperies as who this woman he’d known for years might be, had slackened to nothing. She had River’s number because River was who you called when the O.B. had an emergency, though the old man was beyond such contingencies now. Which Jennifer Knox knew very well, having been at the funeral.
“Of course,” he said. “Mrs. Knox. How can I help you?”
“There’s someone in the house.”
His grandfather’s house, she meant, which had been unoccupied for a while. It belonged to River now, technically, as his mother kept stressing—“technically” apparently meaning in every possible sense, including the legal, barring his mother’s own feeling that the natural order had been disturbed—and was, equally technically, on the market, though at a price the agent had declared “way too optimistic.” Way, in these post-You-Know-What times. Its refusal to budge suited River, for the moment. He’d grown up in his grandparents’ house, having been abandoned there by a mother whose horizons hadn’t, at the time, included future property rights. He’d been seven. That was a lot of history to sell.
Jennifer Knox was still talking. “I thought about calling the police, but then I thought, well, what if they’re friends of yours? Or, you know, potential buyers?”
“Thanks, Mrs. Knox. I should have let you know. Yes, they’re old friends passing through, in need of somewhere to spend the night. And I know the furniture’s gone, but—”
“It’s still a roof and four walls, isn’t it?”
“Exactly, and cheaper than a hotel. They’re travelling at the moment, and—”
“We all do what we can, don’t we? To keep the costs down.”
“They’ll be gone in the morning. Thanks, Mrs. Knox. I’m grateful you took the trouble.”
His flat was a rented one-bedder, “nicely off the tourist track,” as some smug git had once put it. He might have inherited a country pile, but his actual living conditions remained urban haemorrhoid. The flat was cold most times of year, and even in daylight felt dark. The nightclub over the way hosted live bands twice a week, and a nearby manhole cover had loosened; every time a car ran over it, the resulting ka-chunk ka-chunk made River’s jaw spasm. It happened now, as he tucked his phone in his pocket. Not so much a soundtrack; more an audible toothache.
River raised a middle finger in the world’s general direction. Then went to see who’ broken into his dead grandfather’s home.