Inside, Jackson Lamb squatted in an armchair like a yeti in a biscuit tin: spilling over its edges, but not seeming to care.
This is the eighth book in Mick Herron’s “Slough House” sequence.
Some of you will know the series better by its tv name, SLOW HORSES, running on Apple+ starring Gary Oldman and Saskia Reeves. The former playing the appalling spymaster-of-the-broken Jackson Lamb while looking and sounding disturbingly like my old grandad, the latter playing his lieutenant and foil Catherine Standish, in a wholly unexpected and marvellous performance.
The woods were lovely, dark, and deep, and full of noisy bastards.
If you’re not aware of the books or the show, here’s the set up: Slough House is the British Intelligence version of American police departments’ “rubber gun squad,” where intel operatives who can’t be fired for cause but are not wanted are sent to languish. There, they do administrative shitwork for the rest of their lives until they quit in disgust. This purgatory is presided over by the vile, flatulent anti-George Smiley, Jackson Lamb, a man with an awesome and terrifying Cold War reputation who must surely have fucked up in some epic way to have been placed in charge of Slough House. He is monstrous, callous and casually abusive to his charges and, in fact, anyone else who dares stray into his drunken squinting gaze. The stories are about the various limbo’d agents of Slough House, and the things Jackson Lamb is up to when nobody is looking.
We are eight books in, and Herron is self-aware enough to drop lines like:
Catherine appeared in the doorway, with a suddenness which might have been alarming if it weren’t a firmly established trope.
One of the joys of reading Herron is his shameless grinning swagger as a writer. Each book begins on the street outside Slough House and enters the building by its busted back door to give us a tour of the offices, and he does it in a slightly different way each time – following a rat through the place, narrating the passage of a sentient breeze, or having the tour given by a ghost. Just because he can. Herron has that rare gift of communicating on the page his joy at getting to tell his stories.
The last couple of books started to lean into Lamb as a magical farting goblin spook, as if Herron had finally been ensnared by his creation’s murky charisma. So it was interesting, in this book, to see him throw that somewhat into reverse for much of the time. And when Lamb does materialise for an extended period in the last act, a character observes that, for a moment, he was so busy being clever that he forgot to play himself. And, at the end of the book, we get more of a sense of why Lamb is in Slough House.
In some ways, this is a by-the-numbers Slough House book. In two other ways, it is not. One, it is notably lighter in tone. Two: it feels like Herron is coming in for a landing. He’s a sneaky bastard. Destabilising the reader is his stock in trade. The rug is being arranged for a hard yank.
Don’t start with this one. Start with SLOW HORSES. But, if you’re already into the series? BAD ACTORS will be pleasing – and if you feel like it’s marking time and moving characters around to no effect, I would ask you to consider that Herron may have his reasons for that.