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What happens when an old spook loses his mind? Does the Service have a retirement home for those who know too many secrets but don’t remember they’re secret? Or does someone take care of the senile spy for good?
These are the paranoid concerns of David Cartwright, a Cold War–era operative and one-time head of MI5 who is sliding into dementia, and questions his grandson, River, must figure out answers to now that the spy who raised him has started to forget to wear pants. But River, himself an agent at Slough House, MI5’s outpost for disgraced spies, has other things to worry about. A bomb has detonated in the middle of a busy shopping center and killed forty innocent civilians. The “slow horses” of Slough House must figure out who is behind this act of terror before the situation escalates.
About the Author
Mick Herron is a British novelist and short story writer who was born in Newcastle and studied English at Oxford. He is the author of six books in the Slough House series (Slow Horses, Dead Lions, Real Tigers, Spook Street, London Rules, and the novella The List) and four Oxford mysteries (Down Cemetery Road, The Last Voice You Hear, Why We Die, and Smoke and Whispers), as well as the standalone novels Reconstruction, Nobody Walks and This Is What Happened. His work has won the CWA Gold Dagger for Best Crime Novel, the Steel Dagger for Best Thriller, and the Ellery Queen Readers Award, and been nominated for the Macavity, Barry, Shamus, and Theakstons Novel of the Year Awards. He currently lives in Oxford and writes full-time.
Read an Excerpt
Heat rises, as is commonly known, but not always without effort. In Slough House, its ascent is marked by a series of bangs and gurgles, an audible diary of a forced and painful passage through cranky piping, and if you could magic the plumbing out of the structure and view it as a free-standing exoskeleton, it would be all leaks and dribbles: an arthritic dinosaur, its joints angled awkwardly where fractures have messily healed; its limbs a mis-matched muddle; its extremities stained and rusting, and weakly pumping out warmth. And the boiler, the heart of this beast, wouldn’t so much beat as flutter in a trip-hop rhythm, its occasional bursts of enthusiasm producing explosions of heat in unlikely places; its irregular palpitations a result of pockets of air straining for escape. From doors away you can hear its knocking, this antiquated heating system, and it sounds like a monkey-wrench tapping on an iron railing; like a coded message transmitted from one locked cell to another.
It’s a wasteful, unworkable mess, but then this shabby set of offices—hard by Barbican underground station, on Aldersgate Street, in the borough of Finsbury—isn’t exactly noted for its efficiency, of equipment or personnel. Indeed, its inhabitants might as well be banging on pipes with spanners themselves for all their communication skills are worth, though on this cold January morning, two days after an appalling act at Westacres shopping centre claimed upwards of forty lives, other noises can be heard in Slough House. Not in Jackson Lamb’s room, for once: of all the building’s occupants, he may be the one most obviously in tune with its rackety plumbing, being no stranger to internal gurglings and sudden warm belches himself, but for the moment his office is empty, and his radiator its sole source of clamour. In the room opposite, though—until a few months back, Catherine Standish’s; now Moira Tregorian’s—there is at least some conversation taking place, though of a necessarily one-sided nature, Moira Tregorian currently being the room’s sole occupant: her monologue consists of single, emphatic syllables—a “tchah” here, a “duh” there—interspersed with the odd unfractured phrase, never thought I’d see the day and what on earth’s this when it’s at home? A younger listener might assume Moira to be delivering these fragments down a telephone, but in fact they are directed at the papers on her desk, papers which have accumulated in the absence of Catherine Standish, and have done so in a manner uncontaminated by organisational principle, whether chronological, alphabetical or commonsensical, since they were deposited there by Lamb, whose mania for order has some way to go before it might be classed as neurotic, or even observable. There are many sheets of paper, and each of them has to be somewhere, and discovering which of the many possible somewheres that might be is Moira’s job today, as it was yesterday, and will be tomorrow. Had he done so deliberately, Lamb could hardly have come up with a more apt introduction to life under his command, here in this administrative oubliette of the Intelligence Service, but the truth is, Lamb hasn’t so much consigned the documents to Moira’s care as banished them from his own, out of sight/out of mind being his solution to unwanted paperwork. Moira, whose second day in Slough House this is, and who has yet to meet Jackson Lamb, has already decided she’ll be having a few sharp words with him when that event comes to pass. And while she is nodding vigorously at this thought the radiator growls like a demented cat, startling her so she drops the papers she is holding, and has to scramble to retrieve them before they disarrange themselves again.
Meanwhile, from the landing below, other noise floats up: a murmur from the kitchen, where a kettle has lately boiled, and a recently opened fridge is humming. In the kitchen are River Cartwright and Louisa Guy, both with warm mugs in their hands, and Louisa is maintaining a nearly unbroken commentary on the trials and tribulations accompanying the purchase of her new flat. This is quite some distance away, as London flats tend to be if they’re affordable, but the picture she paints of its size, its comfort, its uncluttered surfaces, is evidence of a new contentment that River would be genuinely glad to witness, were he not brooding about something else. And all the while, behind him, the door to his office creaks on a squeaky hinge, not because anyone is currently using it, but in general protest at the draughts that haunt Slough House, and in a more particular complaint directed at the commotion arising from the next floor down.
But while his door remains unused, River’s office is not empty, for his new colleague—a slow horse for some two months now—sits within, slumped in his chair, the hood of his hoodie pulled over his head. Apart from his fingers he is still, but these move unceasingly, his keyboard pushed aside the better to accommodate this, and while an observer would see nothing more than an advanced case of the fidgets, what JK Coe is describing on the scuffed surface of his desk is a silent replica of what’s coursing through his head via his iPod: Keith Jarrett’s improvised piano recital from Osaka, November 8, 1976, one of the Sun Bear concerts; Coe’s fingers miming the melodies Jarrett discovered on the night, all those miles and all those years away. It’s a soundless echo of another man’s genius, and serves a dual purpose: of tamping down Coe’s thoughts, which are dismal, and of drowning out the noises his mind would otherwise entertain: the sound of wet meat dropping to the floor, for instance, or the buzz of an electric carving knife wielded by a naked intruder. But all this he keeps to himself, and as far as River and the other denizens of Slough House are concerned, JK Coe is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, the whole package then refashioned in the shape of a surly, uncommunicative twat.
Though even if he were yodelling, he’d not be heard over the commotion from the floor below. Not that this racket is emanating from Roderick Ho’s room, or no more of it than usual (the humming of computers; the tinnitus-rattle of Ho’s own iPod, loaded with more aggressive music than Coe’s; his nasal whistling, of which he is unaware; the rubbery squeak his swivel-chair emits when he shifts his buttocks); no, what’s surprising about the atmosphere in Ho’s room—or what would surprise anyone who chose to hang out there, which no one does, because it’s Ho’s room—is that it’s upbeat. Cheerful, even. As if something other than his own sense of superiority is warming Roddy Ho’s cockles these days, which would be handy, given the inability of his radiator to warm anything much, cockles or otherwise; it coughs now, and spits fizzily from its valve, spurting water onto the carpet. Ho doesn’t notice, and nor does he register the following gurgle from deep within the system’s pipes—a noise that would disturb any number of serious beasts: horses, lions, tigers—but this is not so much because Ho is a preternaturally cool character, whatever his own views on that subject, and more because he simply can’t hear it. And the reason for this is that the lapping and gurgling of the radiator’s innards, the banging and clicking of pipes, the splashy rattling of the system’s exoskeleton, are all drowned out by the noise from next door, where Marcus Longridge is waterboarding Shirley Dander.
“Yeah, I didn’t follow any of that.”
“Sorry, does that mean—”
The chair to which Shirley was tied with belts and scarves was angled against her desk, and nearly crashed to the floor when she arched her back. A loud crack suggested structural damage, at the same moment as the flannel that had covered her face slapped the carpet like a dead sea creature hitting a rock. Shirley herself made similar noises for a while; if you were asked to guess, you might hazard that someone was trying to turn themselves inside out, without using tools.
Marcus, whistling softly, replaced the jug on a filing cabinet. Some water had splashed his sweater, a pale blue Merino V-neck, and he tried to brush it away, with as much success as that usually has. Then he sat and stared at his monitor, which had long defaulted to its screensaver: a black background around which an orange ball careened, bumping against its borders, never getting anywhere. Yeah: Marcus knew how that felt.
After a few minutes Shirley stopped coughing.
After a few minutes more, she said, “It wasn’t as bad as you said.”
“You lasted less than seven seconds.”
“Bollocks. That was about half an hour, and—”
“Seven seconds, first drops to whatever it was you said. Blurgh? Blargh?” He banged his hand on his keyboard, and the screensaver vanished. “Not our agreed safety word, by the way.”
“But you stopped anyway.”
“What can I tell you? Getting soft.”
A spreadsheet opened into view. Marcus couldn’t immediately recall what it represented. Not a lot of work had happened in this office lately.
Shirley freed herself from scarves and belts. “You didn’t time it properly.”
“I timed it immaculately,” he said, drawing the word out: immac-u-late-ly. “It’s like I said, no one can cope with that shit. That’s why it’s so popular with the vampires.”
The vampires being those whose job it was to draw blood from stones.
Shirley lobbed the wet flannel at him. Without taking his eyes from the screen he caught it one-handed, and scowled as water scattered everywhere: “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” She towelled her head dry: a five-second pummel. “Gunna let me do you now?”
“In. Your. Dreams.”
She stuck her tongue out. Then said, “So. You’d be prepared to do that?”
“Just did, didn’t I?”
“For real, I mean. And keep doing it.”
Marcus looked up. “If it’d stop another Westacres, hell, yes. I’d keep doing it until the bastard told me everything. And drown him doing it, wouldn’t bother me none.”
“It would be murder.”
“Blowing up forty-two kids in a shopping centre is murder. Waterboarding a suspected terrorist to death, that’s housekeeping.”
“The philosophy of Marcus Longridge, volume one.”
“Pretty much sums it up. Someone’s got to do this shit. Or would you rather let the terrorist walk, for fear of violating his human rights?”
“He was only a suspect a moment ago.”
“And we both know what being a suspect means.”
“He’s still got rights.”
“Like those kids had? Tell their parents.”
He was getting loud now, which they’d both got into the habit of not worrying about, Lamb not having been around lately. This didn’t mean he couldn’t show up any moment, of course—his large frame creepily silent on the stairs, so the first you knew of his presence was his nicotine breath and sour outlook: Having fun, are we?—but until that happened, Shirley’s view was, they might as well keep on skiving.
She said, “Maybe. I just don’t think it’s that simple.”
“Yeah, things get simple real quick at the sharp end. I thought you’d have worked that out by now. Anyway,” and he indicated the chair she’d been sitting on, “better shift that into Ho’s office.”
“Oh. Yeah. Think he’ll snitch?”
“Not if he values that bum-fluff he calls a beard,” said Marcus, briefly stroking his own. “He rats us out to Lamb, I’ll rip it from his chin.” Probably a figure of speech, thought Shirley, but possibly a treat in store.
Marcus being Marcus, it could go either way.
Had he been aware that he was the subject of his colleagues’ violent fantasies, Roderick Ho would have put it down to jealousy.
Fact was, he looked fantastic.
Don’t just take his word for it, either.
He’d arrived, as usual, in a terrific mood: swanned in wearing a brand-new jacket (waist-length black leather—when you’ve got it, flaunt it!) and popped the tab on a Red Bull which he chuga-lugged while his kit warmed up. Seriously, seriously, this was starting to harsh his mellow: his gear at the Rod-pad ran to higher specs than the Service provided, but what are you gunna do—explain to Jackson Lamb that some heavy duty cap-ex was required if Slough House was to come crawling out of the nineties? . . . He paused for a moment, allowing that scenario to take shape: “Jackson, Jackson, trust me—the suits, man, they’ve got to get this sorted. Asking me to work with that crap is like, well, put it this way. Would you ask Wayne Rooney to kick a tin can around?” And Lamb chuckling, throwing his hands up in mocksurrender: “You win, you win. I’ll get the pointy-heads at the Park to loosen the purse-strings . . .”
That struck the right note, he decided.
If Lamb ever showed up, definitely the way to play it.
Meanwhile, he cracked his knuckles, clicked on Amazon, wrote a one-star review of a random book, then checked his beard in the mirror he’d fixed to the anglepoise. Devilishly stylish. The odd red strand among the black, but nothing a little tweezer-work couldn’t handle, and if it wasn’t entirely symmetrical, five minutes with the old kitchen scissors soon had things on track. Looking this good took effort. Not rocket science, but it managed to evade some of the lamebrains round here—naming no River Cartwrights, of course.
Heh heh heh.
Cartwright was upstairs in the kitchen, chatting to Louisa. There’d been a time, not long back, when Roddy had had to play it cool with Louisa. It had been clear she’d taken a shine to him: embarrassing, but there it was—it wasn’t like she was a total dog; in the right light, she cast a nice shadow, but she was old, midthirties, and when women got to that age, a taint of desperation clung to them. Weaken for a moment, and they’d be picking out curtains and suggesting quiet nights in. Which was not how Roderick Ho played the game: so sayonara, babes. Being a tactful kind of guy, he’d managed to convey to her without having to put it into actual words that the Rod was off-limits—that Rod’s rod was not in her future—and give her her due, she’d managed to accept that without too much fuss, the odd wistful, what-might-have-been glance excepted. In other circumstances, he thought, there’d have been no harm in it—throwing a single woman the occasional boner was an act of charity—but a regular ram-Rodding was not on the agenda, and it would have been cruel to get her hopes up.
Besides, if the chick caught him providing consolation to another woman, he’d be in serious trouble.
Dig that singular.
Chick, not “chicks.”
Roddy Ho has got himself a girlfriend.
Still humming, still in a terrific mood, and still looking fantastic, Ho returned to his screen, metaphorically rolled his sleeves up, and splash-dived into the Dark Web, deaf to the continual gurgling of his radiator, and the sloshing in the pipes connecting his room to everyone else’s.
What was that blessed noise?
Only she didn’t need telling what it was, thank you very much, because it was the radiator again, sounding like a sick cat doing its business. Putting the most recently sorted stack of papers down—not that “sorted” was the right word, their category being “documents without a date”—Moira Tregorian paused in her efforts and surveyed her new domain.
Her office was on the top floor; it was the one vacated by her predecessor, and nearest Mr. Lamb’s. The personal possessions Catherine Standish had left behind (her departure had been abrupt) were in a cardboard box, sealed with packing tape: her non-official-issue pens, a glass paperweight; a full bottle of whisky, wrapped in tissue paper—the woman had had a drink problem, but then, that was Slough House. Everyone here had problems, or what you now had to call “issues.” Moira supposed that was why she’d been assigned here, to provide overdue backbone.
Dust everywhere, of course. The whole building felt neglected; seemed to revel in the condition, as if the appearance of a duster might cause structural conniptions. And condensation fogged the windows, and had pooled in puddles on the frame, where it was blossoming into mould, and much more of this and the whole place would be falling around your ears . . . Well. Someone needed to take a firm hand. This had clearly been beyond poor Catherine Standish, but once you let the bottle be your friend, you were letting yourself in for sorry times indeed.
It had not escaped her that among the forms awaiting attention were Standish’s discharge papers, needing only Jackson Lamb’s signature.
And it had long been Moira Tregorian’s credo that paperwork was what kept battleships afloat: you could have all your admirals out on deck in their fancy get-up, but without the right paperwork, you’d never get out of the harbour. She had always been a force for order, and didn’t care who knew it. In Regent’s Park, she’d kept the Queens of the Database in trim, ensuring that their timekeeping was precise and their equipment regularly serviced; that the plants they insisted on were disposed of once they died; that the stationery they got through at a rate of knots was replenished weekly, and a log kept of who was taking what, because Moira Tregorian wasn’t born blind and she wasn’t born stupid. Post-it notes might be made of paper, but they didn’t grow on trees. And every so often, just to show there wasn’t much she couldn’t turn her hand to, she’d taken a shift as duty-officer: fielding emergency calls and what-not. None of it terribly complicated, if you asked her—but then, she was an office manager, and proud of it. Things needed managing. You only had to cast an eye around to get an inkling of what happened otherwise. And chaos was a breeding ground for evil.
Another thump from downstairs suggested that chaos was winning the battle for Slough House. In the absence of any other champion, Moira gave a long-suffering sigh, and headed down to investigate.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
“Slough House was a branch of the Service, certainly, but ‘arm’ was pitching it strong. As was ‘finger’, come to that; fingers could be on the button or on the pulse. Fingernails, now: those you clipped, discarded, and never wanted to see again. So Slough House was a fingernail of the Service: a fair step from Regent’s Park geographically, and on another planet in most other ways. Slough House was where you ended up when all the bright avenues were closed to you. It was where they sent you when they wanted you to go away, but didn’t want to sack you in case you got litigious about it” Spook Street is the fourth book in the Slough House series by British author, Mick Herron. Jackson Lamb is hungover, par for the course, but not the best state for dealing with a problem of this magnitude. David Cartwright, Service legend and grandfather of one of his Slough House crew, has apparently shot his grandson. River Cartwright had been worried that the O.B., subsiding into dementia, would do something silly and dangerous, and that does seem to be what has now happened. Elsewhere in London, Security Services are investigating a flash-mob gathering targeted by a suicide bomber that left forty-two dead. The two events would appear to be unrelated, but the identities of those involved begin to suggest otherwise. Bad Sam Chapman, David Cartwright’s back-up, back in the day, is now working as a PI, but a man with his Service training knows when he’s being followed. They may be “…exiled to Slough House with the other catastrophes of the intelligence world; sentenced to plough away at a series of unpromising projects with no end in sight…” but when the Slough House crew realise someone is trying to kill Sam, Jackson decides they are “operational”. Herron gives his characters smart, snappy dialogue; his plot is imaginative but believable, with several twists and turns to keep it interesting; there’s plenty of humour, much of it black, some relying on double meaning or innuendo that will have readers snickering, giggling and laughing out loud. As the fourth instalment of a series, it doubtless contains some spoilers for earlier books, but can easily be read as a stand-alone. But almost certainly, many readers will be seeking out the rest of the series. Clever and original With thanks to Bookstr and Hachette Australia for this copy to read and review.
5/5 on the Hoot-meter I tried, I really tried. The plan was to make it last. Read a few chapters, put it down, then repeat. Right…..I read it in a day because I was just having too much fun. When a new Mick Herron book comes out I will beg, borrow & steal to get my hands on it & this just might be the best of the bunch. The prologue yanks you into a typical mall somewhere in London. It’s full of busy shoppers & bored teens lounging around the fountain. Then the unspeakable happens. A man steps into the crowd & detonates his vest. In the horrific aftermath, MI5 is called in to investigate & calm the public but things really hit the fan when the bomber is identified. Ever heard of a “cold body”? Me neither. Meanwhile over at Slough House, River Cartwright worries about his grandfather. David Cartwright is a former spook who’s a legend in the spy world. But lately he seems a bit confused & doesn’t always recognize his grandson. He’s also dropping details about the old days that would best remain unsaid. What happens when a man full of state secrets begins to lose the plot? River has heard rumours about MI5 having an ”enhanced retirement package” for employees who become a problem & he’s determined to protect the man who raised him. That becomes a challenge when his next visit ends with a dead man in David’s bathroom. Eventually these 2 threads intersect in ways that have the bigwigs at Regent Park scrambling to save their own skin. They’ve elevated backstabbing to an art form in an environment where “The Art of War” is probably required reading. Book #4 of the “Slow Horses” series picks up in the aftermath of the last one & there have been some changes. Herron doesn’t hesitate to bump off establish characters so there are a few new faces at Slough House where MI5 agents labelled as screw-ups are sent to shift endless stacks of paper until they quit (or die, whichever comes first). But most of the original cast is back & they’re in fine form. IT genius Rodney Ho continues to live in an alternate universe where everyone likes him & chicks think he’s hot. Shirley Dander has surrendered to HR requests to deal with her volatile personality & is faithfully attending anger management classes. Marcus Longridge still has that pesky little gambling problem & is so bored he’s water boarding Shirley. Presiding over the crew is cold war relic Jackson Lamb. He’s never met someone he couldn’t offend & many would pay to see him gone but when you’ve been around a long time, you tend to know where the bodies are buried, literally. These stories are always a great mix of smart intricate mystery & dry black humour. It’s full of moments that make you gasp, frequently followed by inappropriate laughter. Herron is a keen observer of the human condition & his depiction of David Cartwright’s battle with dementia somehow manages to be both poignant & hilarious. Even in his screwed up fictional world, you’ll recognize more than a kernel of reality as he satirizes politicians, government bureaucracy & public perceptions. This one earns a spot on my “Top Ten” for 2016 & I begin the long wait for book #5. If you’re a fan of Stuart MacBride or Jay Stringer, do yourself a favour & pick up “Slow Horses”.