Berlin at night, 1995 (Photo: Schlemmer/ullstein bild/ Getty Images); Author Mick Herron at the 'Slow Horses' premiere (David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images for Apple)
Spies Like Them: Mick Herron on His Contemporary World of Espionage
The new novel from the creator of the 'Slow Horses' TV series draws on Herron's experience in post-reunification Berlin / BY Nathalie Atkinson / September 8th, 2023
Ahead of my conversation with British spy novelist Mick Herron, I worry that in spite of carefully double and treble-checking the time zone conversion, I’ve still somehow scheduled our video call appointment wrong.
If I were an MI5 agent in Herron’s bestselling series, that would be my fatal error — the incident that would get me banished from Regent’s Park (the British Intelligence HQ) to Slough House, a fictional oubliette near the Barbican for disgraced operatives that gives the series its name. The slow horses, as they’re called, are kept on the payroll with busywork, under the malign neglect of slovenly but wily manager Jackson Lamb.
Happily, my timing goes to plan and the author beams in from his home in Oxford, England. We chat about that morning’s doozy of a BBC headline, so inept you can’t make it up: ‘Typo sends millions of US military emails to Russian ally Mali.’ “If I see an interesting news story, I sort of avoid it,” he laughs. “Or I’m gonna make my own version up.”
I’m especially nervous because Slow Horses is one of my personal favourites (I have extolled the series’ virtues in Zoomer before). But I’m just one of its legion of devotees, alongside Mick Jagger. Herron recalls when he was told the Rolling Stone frontman had written an original song for the series theme and would be recording “Strange Game” the following week. “The lyrics are very much those of someone who has read the books and knows what’s going on.”
Over the summer, sales of the Slough House series surpassed 2 million; Barbican Station, a popular podcast, pores over every detail of the extended literary universe with the same enthusiasm I reserve for John Cassavetes Easter eggs in ’70s episodes of Columbo. Grubby, often nocturnal, London is as much a character as the agents are, and Herron’s descriptions of the metropolis — poised and watchful and alive — are vivid. It’s even generated cultural tourism: there is now a guide to the city of London featured in Slow Horses.
Herron, 60, who grew up in Newcastle upon Tyne , was born around the time of John F. Kennedy’s Ich bin ein Berliner speech, one of the most famous of the Cold War. It’s a coincidence, but apt because its long shadow looms large in the professional history of the series’ older characters. Although they are contemporary novels, Jackson Lamb, his put-upon lieutenant Catherine Standish and their Regent’s Park boss Diana Taverner (played by Gary Oldman, Saskia Reeves and Kristin Scott Thomas, respectively, in the AppleTV+ adaptation) frequently allude to events in the waning days of Cold War and early post-reunification Berlin that impacted them.
John le Carré owns the Cold War – or as Herron himself once put it in an interview, “If Smiley is the owl, I think Lamb is more of a pigeon; he eats shit, he craps everywhere.” But Herron owns the aftermath. So much so that he’s often been hailed (most recently in a New Yorker profile) as a modern rival to Ian Fleming and le Carré. It’s become such frequent shorthand for critics and booksellers, in fact, that Herron has a bit of fun with it in the latest book in the series through the character of committee member Deborah Ford-Lodge: “The glamour appointee, an espionage novelist whose recent decalogy about a mole hunt in the upper echelons of what she referred to as the Fairground had her pegged by some as the heir to le Carré — one of an admittedly long list of legatees.”
Yet, both the mundane work Herron chronicles — the realistic drudgery of bureaucracy — and his witty irreverence for the serious material is more akin to Len Deighton (now 94), whose 1960s novels about reluctant working-class spy Harry Palmer are an antidote to the improbable jet-set swagger of Bond.
After recently rereading them for the first time since he was a teenager, Herron says he was astonished by how much he had taken from Deighton’s early work without remembering it. “He was writing about office life and I owe a huge debt — without it having been conscious,” he admits. Herron dissects the establishment the way Deighton writes about class. When he started writing the books in 2008, “we were just heading into that era where the U.K. has been governed by a bunch of public school boys, very much to the detriment of the national wellbeing. And that inevitably becomes class because these people are all deeply entitled, deeply wealthy and completely out of touch with the realities of modern life.”
Positioned adjacent to more than a dozen novels, novellas and short stories in the main series, Herron’s latest is The Secret Hours (Soho Press, Sept. 12), exploring double-dealing in ’90s Berlin and the decades-old cover-up of a classified operation gone awry.
Because none of the Slough House characters are mentioned by name, The Secret Hours is not only a gripping standalone but for the uninitiated, but also an ideal introduction to the pleasures of the series. (They should have called it The Secret History, alas that title is famously taken.) With one foot in the present and the other in 1994 Berlin (told through extended flashbacks), The Secret Hours functions as an ideal origin story.
“I didn’t want to use maps or pin it down to historical events,” Herron says of capturing the flavour of 1994 Berlin, so he read essays on the social histories of the time. “I wanted to know what the streets would smell like. I wanted to know what kind of people were there.” One of the details that stuck with him and found its way into the book was the preponderance of young men on the streets; “the semi hedonistic, almost despairing partying that was going on, and the very fragile nature of reunification at that time when there was so much resentment in the West.”
He also draws on his own experience in the mid-’90s of meeting people from West Germany who were visiting England “and their unsympathetic view of reunification and what it was costing them.” Those sentiments are folded into the narrative. “Any given period of history is about the people inhabiting it and how they respond to events and circumstances.”
The Secret Hours begins in the now with a thrilling cold open chase, in which a retired academic named Max is roused from insomnia by the sound of intruders at his Devon cottage. The would-be assailant gives chase and the 63-year-old runs for his life. The story then moves into the past to unfurl how Max’s previous identity entwines with the present-day. Readers may recall that the inquiry is mentioned in last year’s Slough House short story, Standing by the Wall. To paraphrase from it, ‘An archive is not only to render the past but it was there to seed future reckoning.’ The action, such as it is, is spurred by the arrival of an old file.
It all relates to a grindingly dull and ineffectual present-day governmental committee of inquiry (fittingly called Monochrome) set up by a since-discredited prime minister to look into “historical overreaching by the intelligence services.” The novel unfolds in the post-COVID lockdown landscape of vacant offices and labour strikes, where Herron brings stultifying office culture to life. One moment of particularly absurd humour includes an impregnable, idiosyncratic sui generis classification system (imagine Douglas Adams writing Kafka) and the impossibility of being able to request files.
While business and management articles regularly suggest how to avoid long and useless group meetings, Herron thrives on them. “Although I’m writing thrillers, I’m not really that interested in writing the action sequences,” he chuckles. “If I could get away with it, I’d be writing just about people locked up in a room in conflict. Just in purely verbal and mental and emotional conflict. These are things that interest me.” Mission: Impossible without the elaborate setpieces or running is pretty much his ideal.
There’s insightful and often prescient commentary on current events; Herron was writing about white nationalists and a resurgent far-right back in 2008. In the current novel, the battle for the soul of the secret service is about privatization and outsourcing: the privately contracted world of public security and third-party for-profit groups, alongside the increasing prominence of non-elected forces in government.
Like the main books, The Secret Hours is a state of the nation novel, albeit on a more intimate scale. (You don’t have to follow geopolitics to enjoy the series, but it sure helps.) It features a different selection of civil servants, including one status-conscious climber sliding down the ladder and another a 50-something whose career is at a standstill. There is a fate worse than failure because they’re stuck in the limbo of mediocrity.
Herron says he doesn’t quite know why failure and career despair fascinate him so much, but he remains very keyed into the notion that failure is more common than success. “I keep using the word failure because there isn’t a softer word for it, I suppose lack of fulfilment seems to me to be more common,” he says.
In a career writing detective and spy novels, with the last 15 mainly on Slough House, it’s only been six years since Herron left his day job as a copy editor of journal articles and case reports about employment discrimination and wrongful termination.
“I think that in the working life, we’re very lucky if we’re doing jobs that we enjoy and fill us out in some way. The vast majority of people live lives where the efforts that they have to make simply in order to survive, put food on the table, put a roof over their heads is completely unfulfilling and without any kind of redemptive qualities,” he adds. “And I find that very, very affecting. And I was almost there. Not quite, because my day job did involve me using stuff that I use today — but wasn’t using up any of my creative energies.”
How would life be different if he had emerged, like Martin Amis did, fully formed and famous at 22? He admires Amis but within the genre, he points out, the authors who have really lasted — like Ann Cleeves or Ian Rankin or Val McDermid and various others he mentions — tend to be authors who had written 9, 10 or more books before they achieved their status and success. “I’ve said it a few times, I’ll say it again. If you’re only gonna be successful in one half of your career, make it the second one,” he adds. “The first half, that’s a tragedy. This way it’s a happy ending.”
The Secret Hours by Mick Herron is published on Sept. 12; Slow Horses Season 3 airs exclusively on AppleTV+ this fall; watch Herron in virtual conversation with Michael Connelly on Sept 11.