Saturday, October 19, 2013

Slow Horses

I subscribe to just a handful of blogs and newsletters about crime fiction, and it is hard to keep up with even this small correspondence.  BUT these missives are great sources for new reads, such as today's offering.  Mick Herron's Slow Horses (Soho Constable, 2010) is not a complete departure - it is a Soho Press production after all - but it is a new series and a refreshingly new direction for me.

The slow horses of the title are disgraced and down-but-not-yet-out members of MI5, assigned to a Siberia called Slough House, far away from the HQ at Regent's Park.  Some know why they are there - a botched mission, a relationship with someone disgraced - others don't.  All they know is that they are pretty much doomed to stay there forever, doing numbing tasks like monitoring web traffic of obscure groups and locations that may or may not have anything to do with any kind of security risk, ever.  It's never stated explicitly whether anyone gets to leave Slough House and return to Regent's Park, but the implication is that no one does.  It is also never explained why the characters stay, and don't quit and do something else with their lives, but I guess the point is that they are so quirky and molded by their time in MI5 that they can't imagine doing anything else.  And it is always possible that some of them are there because it serves someone else's ends for them to be out of the way, as in, they were set up for their original fall from grace for other reasons.  The vagaries here are intentional; there is much unsaid, much inferred, and a whole heck of a lot of back story that I still don't know, and I've finished the book!

But maybe the slow horses are useful to HQ, for a little black op here or there.  Except that they might not know what they're being asked to do, or maybe some of them do but you will never entirely know because there is a bit of cutting back and forth.  Herron's method here is to plunge the reader right in, and leave you to figure out for yourself what is going on.  The writing is erudite and British, which I particularly love:  "For Catherine Standish, Slough House was Pincher Martin's rock:  damp, unlovely, achingly familiar, and something to cling to when the waves began to crash." (29)  Who is Pincher Martin and why is he clinging to a rock? The UK always damp but you can tell here that it is not in a cozy village kind of way.  And isn't unlovely such a perfectly lovely word to describe something that is not at all nice?  The writing was not florid, but it was complex and makes you pay attention so you don't miss anything.  This particular sentence is at the start of a section describing Catherine, and is a good example of how much of the first half of this book goes - lots of opaque background nodded at, just enough detail to let you know that these folks either screwed up royally or were royally screwed.  As the story unfolds, it becomes clear - sort of - what happened to whom to bring them here.

[I am also a slow horse, but not because I've been relegated to Slough House.  I am a slow blogger, and now a slow walker due to my recently broken ankle.]

The plot element that moves the story forward is the kidnapping of a young man of Pakistani heritage, by some ultra-nationalists.  They claim that they will behead the young man in 48 hours, and do it live for the world to see via the internet.  How the slow horses come to be involved in this case almost strains credulity given the rapid back-and-forth between scenes of action - Regent's Park, the slow horses, the kidnappers and their victim - round and round in very quick time and with a lot of cryptic nods and winks to stories long buried but threatening now to come back to life.  But that's the how the spook business works, as anyone who has read enough of these books knows.  It all seems like a silly game until someone loses his life.

I think that the heavily descriptive part of the book is necessary because this is the first in a trilogy about the denizens of Slough House, and that the back stories started here will develop and influence the next two books.  Somehow I don't see Our Heroes here ever being fully redeemed - few of them are particularly appealing characters, and some are downright unpleasant - but it is clear that they are marked for further adventures.  I think I shall want to see how this turns out.

No comments:

Post a Comment