Slow Horses is trying hard to be unsentimental and buck the cliches, but can’t quite manage it. It’s still great fun; one of those books you read in a sitting because you’re enjoying it too much to stop. If Mick Herron has a weakness, it’s that he’s not as good at dialogue as he thinks he is, so that in some of the long exchanges, I had to keep going back to see who’d said what I’d just read.
The idea is a great one; cook up a dingy office full of spies who’ve screwed up and been put out to pasture, and then throw a problem at them. That’s almost a one sentence pitch for a tv show, right there.
Would it be any good as a TV Show? Hard to know. Herron’s good at characters; they’re nicely sketched in and have life and heft to them. Get the right director and a good cast, and it ought to run itself. Slow Horses often reads like the feature length pilot for a show which would be great in England and terrible in America. I wanted to know more about the characters and what they did next, which is a pretty good start on a tv show, just as it is a pretty good start on a series of novels.
Where Herron misses his ball, I think, is not following through on his no-hugs-no-learning mission statement. The staff of Slough House are supposed to be screw-ups who are beyond redemption, but the plot gives them a shot at redemption and lets it almost work. They’re also supposed to be insignificant, so it’s a bit annoying when one of them turns out to be special after all. I’m not sure if the book would have been as much fun if Herron had followed him logic all the way through, but I have a picky insistence that when a writer tells you he’s going to do something, he should stick to the plan.
Still, I had lots of fun. I loved it that the main character has a terrible name and we’re told repeatedly how stupid everyone else thinks it is. I liked Herron’s tricksy reversals of perspective, even though a lot of them wouldn’t work at all anywhere but the printed page; an author can cut away from the action and leave things undescribed, but TV and movies have an unblinking gaze. Still there are other tricks which TV can use to the same end, even when we’ve come to expect them.
There’s a new book out as of last year, Dead Lions. Can’t quite afford it, but when it get cheap it’s on the priority list, and in the meantime maybe someone in TV land will make it all into a mini series. It would be brilliant.