Monday, March 08, 2010

Slow Horses, by Mick Herron

I began Mick Herron's new Slow Horses with some hesitation, not knowing anything about the author and not being a huge fan of the "MI5" or "CIA" thriller. And Slow Horses is indeed about MI5, the U.K. domestic intelligence service (and subject of the TV series that's called "Spooks" in the U.K. and "MI5" in the U.S.). But Herron is not a conventional thriller writer, and Slow Horses is not conventional in any way. Just when you think you know what's going on, the novel twists away into something different, often enough that the effect is comic rather than annoying: Herron isn't tricking the reader, he's creating a story that, while remaining a thriller, is a farce with a deeply cynical attitude toward the intelligence establishment (more so even than "Spooks" or Le Carre), the government, and the general public. It's very difficult to say anything about the plot (or even the characters) without spoiling the plot (and the fun), but in its barest bones, Slow Horses is about a group of agents cast out of the inner circle of the organization (literally and figuratively) for various reasons (mistakes like leaving a computer disk on the train--one element stolen from reality). In fact, the first chapters of the book are about a spectacular mistake on the part of what seems to be the central character, River Cartwright (whose very name suggests a different sort of novel), and his attempt to redeem himself by stealing a file from a flash drive that he is not supposed to see. But the process he sets in motion shifts and twists so that a reader is pulled along both by the plot (murky though it is at times) and by the pleasure of the chase that the author provides. This is one of those novels that uses all the resources of writing--it is very much a written story rather than a film-on-the-page, like so many thrillers. Even when you think you've caught Herron in a typo or an inconsistency, beware of making any assumptions (even that is perhaps too much of a spoiler). If anyone has any recommendations about Herron's other detective and spy novels, please pass them along: I'm definitely looking for another one...

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