’What you have to bear in mind’–the O.B.’s words–’is that worst sometimes does come to worst.’
The worst had increased exponentially over the last few years.
The O.B.’s words of advice for his grandson turns out to be a bit more. I don’t think Herron placed this on page 2 to be a thesis statement for the book — but it really could be one. River Cartwright was musing about the way things were going for Intelligence officers (and people in related vocations) when it came to predicting what terrorists of various stripes would do. If September 11, July 7, and similar dates have taught Intelligence officers (and people in general), anything it is that sometimes the worst case is actually what happens. (actually, what do I know, maybe it was a thesis for the novel)
Of course, it doesn’t just happen for terrorist attacks — sometimes it happens for someone’s career. Take River Cartwright — after the events on page 2 (and the rest of that first chapter) — and his colleagues. Each of them had worked for the Intelligence service, many of them were rising stars (or stars that had already risen), until they messed up. Sometimes it’s in a large-scale drill, sometimes it was in the course of duty — but they all made an embarrassing mistake, misstep or failure of another stripe, resulting them being assigned to Slough House. In Slough House, all the officers still technically do intelligence work — reviewing transcripts of cell phone conversations for certain words and phrases, for example. But it’s all low priority, low importance work. Far from the important work that the rest of MI-5 (and the rest) do. They’re dubbed the “Slow Horses” and if they aren’t forgotten about by the rest of the service, they’re mocked.
One day, a Slow Horse brushes up against something that approaches “real” work and River takes the results are taken to MI-5’s HQ for them to follow-up on (after making a copy). About the same time that happens, a young Pakistani immigrant is kidnapped by a nationalist group that promises to behead him on the Internet. River decides to try to follow up on this intel, thinking it might lead to the kidnappers. And well, chaos ensues, and let’s leave it there.
Honestly, I had a lot of flashbacks to the show MI-5 (aka Spooks), throughout. The story has a very British spy feel, with more clandestine meetings, history and significant looks than an American spy story (which largely revolve around attractive people shooting things). But these Slow Horses aren’t the type that Nicola Walker, Peter Firth, and Miranda Raison would deal with — at best, they’re the ones those people would pass in the hall. But all of them wanted to get back to the major leagues — they all had the drive, the chip on their shoulder, the need to lose the embarrassment. It makes for an interesting motivation — it’s not just about saving the young man, it’s about them doing it.
The characters are quite a rag-tag bunch, who really don’t like each other much at the beginning — they all know that Slough House is a dead-end and resent being there — and transfer that resentment onto the others stuck there with them. An actual team gets forged through the events of this novel and the characters find things about each other that they can relate to — and maybe even admire.
It’s a solid spy story, and one told with restrained humor — it’s not a comedy by any means, but there are comic sensibilities throughout. Herron could’ve easily turned it into a humorous spy story about rejects trying to save the day. But he plays it pretty straight, there are things to grin about — or at least smile wryly about. But by and large this is a serious story told seriously. And it’s well done — it’s a well-constructed story and by the time the big twist is revealed, you care about the players enough to react appropriately.
But man, it was slow. Once things started happening, it flowed pretty smoothly and quickly. But those early chapters, where Herron was setting up his dominoes, were a slog. It took awhile to figure out why we were spending so much time with X, Y and Z. But when he started knocking the dominoes over? You understood why he’d spent the time and were glad he did. The slow pace of the early chapters were entirely justified, thankfully. Still, I think we could’ve had a better hook early on.
I do think that the later books in the series will be able to build on what’s established here and be less slow, and using the characters we met here get into the action quicker. I’m planning on reading at least a couple more in this series because I did enjoy this one, and think that Herron can build this into a great series. It’s a good entry point into something that promises to be better.