Gig review: An Evening with Mick Herron

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On Wednesday evening of this week I returned to Waterstones Bookshop in Bath to listen to Mick Herron discussing his books and writing habits with Sarah Hilary. In preparation for the event I had read the first of Mick’s Slough House series of spy novels, Slow Horses (you may read my review here). Having enjoyed this first foray into his work I now wish to read everything he has written – oh for more time.

The event host was Waterstones’ Senior Bookseller, Steve Andrews, who impressed me by recognising and welcoming me when I arrived. He provided a glass of Prosecco and I took my seat.

Steve opened the discussion by introducing Mick as the finest espionage writer of our time, and pulling from his bag a recently acquired early proof of Mick’s next release, Spook Street. I made sure to approach Yassine, publicity manager at John Murray, to beg a copy for myself afterwards. I do hope he remembers to pop one in the post.

Steve invited Mick to give a reading. Chosen was a short section from Real Tigers, his latest book available for all to buy.

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Sarah then took the helm. She is obviously a fan of Mick’s work. She commented that his character Jackson Lamb, the head of the band of misfits and mavericks banished to Slough House, is one of the greatest grotesques in fiction. Mick explained that what drives Jackson is his view that the Joes – spooks working in the field – must be protected at all costs. Mick doesn’t plot his novels; his characters dictate the action. Although he knows how each story will start he allows his characters room to breath and follows wherever subsequent ideas lead.

Sarah regards Mick’s characters as a team, a type of oddball family. The way their observations and interactions slot together are a joy to read. She asked if they whispered in Mick’s ear.

Mick informed us that Jackson shouts! There is so much more to him than his sometimes monstrous behaviour. Mick hopes that the reader will love each character even if rationally perhaps they shouldn’t.

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One of the more amenable characters is Catherine Standish, a disgraced PA to a late senior spook. Sarah regards her as one of the best female characters in spy fiction. She asked Mick about any difficulties he faced writing a women.

Mick sees Catherine as the moral centre of the team. She is a recovering alcoholic, vulnerable but with a deep inner strength. He mentioned that in Real Tigers she is kidnapped and left with a bottle of wine. He was riffing with Hitchcock and the suspense of a ‘ticking bomb’ in a closed room. This allowed him to get inside Catherine’s mind, something that isn’t always possible in a thriller requiring tension and a fast pace.

Sarah mentioned that Jackson sometimes taunts Catherine but that his apparently crude actions end up displaying compassion. Things are rarely black and white and Mick is a master at showing the grey.

There was discussion of the humour in the novels, the cinematic openings and the crossovers of characters between each of Mick’s published works. Sarah commented that these characters are such a gift, the reader can’t help but want to get to know them better. Mick mentioned that contracts for television or film rights are for individual characters and these crossovers can be problematic when not all his books are to be included in the deal.

Here it was clarified that Mick has published two series – Oxford, and Slough House – as well as two standalone novels. Some of the crossover of characters occurred when it was unclear if a former publisher wished to put out the next Slough House book. Although screenplays have been written for a four part television series it is still unclear when this might be made.

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Mick talked of how he names his characters, and how their personality and actions can slide into place once they have acquired the right moniker. I was highly amused by his take on the name River, his choice for a younger character which he struggled to find for some time. He does not regard River as a real name but rather as something invented by hippies or celebrities. I made sure to pass on through Sarah afterwards that this is the name I chose for my now eighteen year old son.

Mick told us that he does almost no research. His knowledge of the secret service has been gleaned from other spy novels or entirely made up. However, the building known in the books as Slough House actually exists. He passed around photographs as proof.

Mick is often asked if he has any personal experience of espionage, which he denies. The question amuses him as it was not something he was ever asked when writing about a personal investigator.

This led to a discussion about genre and where spy novels fit in. Mick sees crime as asking ‘what happens?’ whereas thrillers ask ‘what happens next?’

An audience member asked Mick how he had switched from character driven novels to action driven. He replied that he had removed his use of the semi colon. This cut out much of the imagery and increased the pace.

He was also asked where his characters came from. He claimed they were aspects of himself. He prefers to deal with issues and creates characters who will deal with these in different ways.

With no further questions the evening concluded with the signing of books and Mick was quickly surrounded. It is clear that, in Bath at least, he has a solid fan base. Given the quality of his writing this is only likely to spread.

Book Review: Slow Horses

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Slow Horses, by Mick Herron, is the first in a series of modern day spy novels featuring members of the British intelligence service put out to grass in a unit nicknamed Slough House. Their banishment to this premises is a punishment for a variety of on the job cock-ups and misdemeanours. Amongst them is River Cartwright, a young man harbouring bitter resentment at being shouldered with the blame following a failed operation. The unit is overseen by Lamb Cartwright, an overweight and often repellent individual who is not as incompetent as he encourages people to think.

The inaccurately named operatives of Slough House are incensed when one of their number is tasked with covertly obtaining information from a disgraced journalist. It is understood that they are given only the most menial and mind-numbing tasks, although each hopes that eventually they will be permitted a return to active service at Regents Park. River regarded his most recent job, collecting and investigating the contents of a rubbish sack, as simply another unpleasant test of his willingness to follow orders. When it ties in with what looks like real spy work he determines to find out more.

All attention then turns to the abduction of a young man whose bound and hooded image is uploaded onto the internet alongside a threat to behead him within forty-eight hours. River sees this as a chance to redeem himself but is denied the opportunity to become involved. Wondering if the abduction could in any way be related to the journalist, from whose home the rubbish sack was taken, he takes matters into his own hands. When his actions go catastrophically wrong each member of Slough House becomes involved.

Unsurprisingly, there is nepotism and corruption at the highest level. It is still shocking how far certain powerful people will go to further their personal agendas. The slow horses are not slick and efficient spies, but they are capable of using their training and wits. Their manoeuvrings are often unexpected but gratifying to read.

This is a tightly written, sardonic and grimly prescient work of spy fiction. It is also rather fun in a stylishly mordacious way. The author ensures that readers get behind his flawed and often flailing creations. This was my first foray into his work; I hope it won’t be my last.