Is Mick Herron the best spy novelist of his generation?

“You never talk about axes and fingerprints and serial killers?” I asked, disappointed.

“One time, someone collapsed while I was giving a reading,” Herron offered. “Or not, that happened twice.” Blacked out. “Or maybe he was sleeping?” But no one had died.

Hilary put down her fork. “People say it, but it’s true. Crime writers unleash all their awesomeness on the page. In person, they are the nicest people.”

“Of course you’d want to take the inside out.”

Cartoon by Zachary Kanin

“You have to watch out for romance writers,” Herron said. “Blood on the carpet, those people.”

After dinner I followed them down a dark, cobbled lane into Burgage Hall, a crowded space, noisy with noise and gossip and smelling of wood smoke and damp wool. Stacks of books were piled on folding tables where wine and juice had been poured into plastic glasses. A desk had been pushed into a corner. The old men unbuttoned their coats and took off their caps; old women settled in the chairs. There was the clatter of muddy boots and the clatter of knitting needles. “Secrets and Spies” was the theme of the evening. It might have been a garden-club date.

In the morning Howard went hiking in the Malvern Hills and Herron and I got on a train to Oxford. We sat at a laminate table facing each other, watching the rain pelt the windows as we sped across the wet landscape. “See It, Say It, Sorted,” read the signs above each door, flashing green pixels.

In the age of terror, everyone is on guard, on trains, buses and planes – not just under surveillance, but also driving. If you see something, say something. Lamb complains, “It’s like everybody’s a goddamn spy.”

I’ve been listening to each of Herron’s novels as audiobooks, played by wonderfully versatile actors, with AirPods in my ears. I felt like a secret agent, eavesdropping. (Julia Franklin, who recorded the Oxford series, and Gerard Doyle and Seán Barrett, who recorded the Jackson Lamb books, all told me they had to stop reading to laugh.) Reading Herron, or listening to him, it’s like riding a merry-go-round. and changing animals each time it spins. You’re in one person’s head, and then you’re in someone else’s head, except, horrifyingly, you’re almost never in Lamb’s. He is a cipher, forever undercover.

Every passenger who passed us on the train, soaking wet in the aisle, was noted by Herron, absently, as if hidden from them in a catalog of humanity. His slow horses come in all types and have been thrown out of service for every imaginable cheat. River Cartwright failed a training exercise. Min Harper left a record called “Top Secret” on a train. Louisa Guy has lost an arms dealer she was chasing. Marcus Longridge, who is Black, is a gambler; and Shirley Dander, of ambiguous sexuality (don’t ask her), is addicted to coke. Roderick Ho, a computer wizard played in the Apple series by Christopher Chung, was sent to Slough House for being a moron.

Ho is himself something of a writer, an inventor of fictional worlds; it amazes him that he can “build a man out of links and screenshots, launch him into the world like a paper boat, and he’ll keep sailing.” Herron loves Ho, the spy writer lost in a world of his own making. “There might come a time when I have to let him grow a little bit,” he admitted, “but then I’ll probably have to kill him.”

Gameplay is brutal: “While Louisa Guy has been known to speculate that Ho sits somewhere on the right side of the autism spectrum, Min Harper casually responded that he’s also way off the git index.” When Longridge insults Peter Judd and Dannder admonishes him for using hate speech, Longridge snaps, “Of course it’s hate speech. I hate the hell out of him.”

“I’ve had readers assume I’m waging a war against political correctness,” Herron said, clearly exasperated. “I’m not. I’m absolutely for treating each other decently. I don’t even think Lamb is waging that war.” Lamb plays with words and takes the piss:

“I let others do the spade work.” He looked at Marcus. “Just a phrase. Let’s not get the thought police involved.”

“We would need one SWAT team, Marcus muttered.

Lamb also tries to get those working for him to quit because he’s worried they’ll be killed. Most of what he does is done to save them. When a bad actor sneaks into Molly Doran’s Records Department and she orders him out, and he tells her he’s “not taking instructions from a crip,” Lamb finds the guy, breaks both of his legs, and asks : “Who’s cool now. ?”

Herron’s phone rang. It was Howard, calling to make sure we caught the train and asking Herron if he could pick up some sneakers he left at home.

“Yes, yes,” said Herron. “Goodbye, dear.” And to me: “It’s too wet to go for a walk.” He went to the shops.” We looked at the pounding rain.

Herron also enjoys writing Catherine Standish, who he’s given the most developed backstory—a messy, drunken past fatally linked to Lamb’s darkest deeds. “She’s more aware than any of the others of how badly her life could have gone,” Herron said. “I have that feeling about my own life.”

In 2017, after the books began to unravel, Herron quit his day job. Not long after, he went to a sales and marketing meeting at John Murray. The name of the series was changed from Slough House Mysteries to Jackson Lamb Thrillers. He was shown posters, advertisements and merchandise, right down to glasses printed with lambisms: “When I’m not full of joy to live?”

“Do you realize,” Herron said quietly to the directors, “that in the book I’m writing right now I’m killing him?”

Silence. He was agitated. More peace. “You’re taking us with us, right?”

Splashing through the flooded tracks, the train stopped at Charlbury, a whistling town on the edge of the Cotswolds, about twenty minutes from Oxford. Several passengers boarded, their umbrellas trailing like tails. The doors closed. The train stood as still as stone, the rain pounding, the wind rattling. Finally, over the speaker system, the conductor said something no one could understand over the static, leaving everyone as bewildered as slow horses stuck underground. “Trouble of signaling,” muses a character in the third of the Slough House books. “These were often caused by heat, when they were not caused by cold or wet or dry things.”

People started grumbling, grumbling, texting. After ten minutes, the conductor’s voice returned – shouting now – to announce that the brakes were locked and it would take at least an hour to unlock them. Budget cuts for Brexit?

Herron and I got off the train and into the rain. The one-room station was closed. There were no buses in town or anywhere. No Uber, no Lyft. No taxi rank. In slickers, we huddled under the towering roof of the station with half a dozen other stranded passengers, including a rosy-cheeked young man and his father, wearing long woolen coats. They had traveled from Worcestershire and the son, who couldn’t have been more than twenty years old, was on his way to London for a job interview, his first.

“You’ll get there,” Herron assured him. “What’s up?”

“Fund Accounting”.

“Oh right. Don’t worry. It’s not far. You’ll be fine.”

The candidate nodded gratefully. Everyone tried to call taxi companies, using mobile phones like missiles. Nobody answered. The rain picks up, then the wind. It suddenly grew quite cold. We were late, we were wet, and now we were freezing.

“When we get to Oxford,” Herron told me, “I’ve arranged for you to be robbed. Then the food poisoning will show up around four.”

Finally, a taxi pulled up. Two women in fur coats and high boots stepped out of the train, dry as toast, and climbed inside. Herron and the father of the aspiring chartered accountant rushed into the rain and asked him to pick up another passenger. The son squeezed into the back seat. Herron knocked on the car window. “Good luck,” he said. “You’ll be great.”

He ran back under the roof of the station, shivering.

Moscow rules: watch your back. London Rules: Cover your ass. Slough House Rules: It’s Joe Country everywhere. Herron rubbed his hands together for warmth and tried to wipe the raindrops from his glasses. My notebook was wet. I asked him why he avoids writing from Jackson Lamb’s head, and he said, “Because I don’t want to break him.” The rain fell like a veil. ♦

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