Read the back story of the Slow Horses series, created by ‘a laureate of decrepitude’

Review: Archie Henderson

The Secret Hours, by Mick Herron (Baskerville)

Mick Herron likes the private joke. In his latest novel, he has created a character who is said to be an heir to John le Carré –  “one of a long list”. Herron himself could not only be on that list, but near the top of it.

The British spy writer has made his mark with a series of his Slow Horses, MI5 outcasts who are run by a dishevelled, objectionable but very smart Jackson Lamb. It is with Lamb that the Guardian has accurately summed up Herron as “something of a laureate of decrepitude”.

But Herron can also do chic cool. His Diana Tavener, immaculately attired and ice-cold, is chief of MI5 and Lamb’s antithesis. Spy novels have never had such contrasting characters.

The Slow Horses were once the domain of the esoteric spy-novel purists. No longer. Ever since Gary Oldman and Kristin Scott Thomas took the roles of Lamb and Tavener in the popular TV series, Herron’s mob have become household names. The series has been such a hit that Herron says he can no longer write without visualising Lamb as Oldman.

Neither appear in The Secret Hours. Or do they? Are they undercover, with different code names? Let the reader decide.

The Secret Hours is a back story to The Slow Horses, those failed MI5 agents sent to Coventry in Slough House in the hope they will quit in disgust, saving the Service (always a capital S) from having to pay out their pensions. No one does, but a few fall in the secret war.

The Secret Hours deals with a favourite Herron theme: privatising government services and in this case, the secret service. There is of course corruption at the highest levels of government (if only the ANC knew this they would have long shed Transnet and Eskom). It’s not too much of a spoiler alert to say that First Desk is just too smart to let that happen – with a lot of help from a few other actors.

The main plot is set against the background of the Berlin Wall having come down, and the unresolved issues that have filtered through the demolition.

Even if you haven’t read all Herron’s other Slow Horses books, The Secret Hours stands up on its own. It will inspire you to get to grips with the series and see how clever this back story is.

Also a joy is the sharp dialogue. One of the main protagonist in The Secret Hours, with his scathing put-downs, will quickly become familiar with a character from his earlier books. I hope that’s not giving away too much, but it’s all part of the great fun of Herron’s story-telling.

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