DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The new novel "Slough House" by Mick Herron is the seventh installment in his series about a team of bungling British spies who've been put out to pasture but keep getting involved in huge cases anyway. Our critic at large John Powers says the book confirms Herron's stature as the best spy novelist now working.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: There are scads of talented spy novelists, but the ones who matter capture something essential about their historical moment. Back in the 1930s and '40s, Eric Ambler nailed the sense of ordinary people being caught up in the machinations of great totalitarian powers. A few decades later, John le Carre caught the personal and moral ambiguities of what John F. Kennedy dubbed the long twilight struggle of the Cold War.
The spy writer most attuned to our delirious moment is Mick Herron, a British novelist who's funny, brilliantly plotted Slough House books are currently being turned into an Apple TV+ series starring Gary Oldman. These novels boast an irresistible premise. They follow the adventures of a group of maladroit MI5 agents who've somehow blown it - you know, left a disk marked top secret on the Underground or slept with an ambassador's spouse.
But instead of being fired, these slow horses - as they're known - have been shunted off to a rundown London building known as Slough House. There, they do suffocatingly dull tasks under the scornful eye of one-time master spy Jackson Lamb, a repulsive genius who tirelessly and hilariously insults them, punctuating his abuse with farts. Yet even as HQ tries to keep the slow horses hidden away, they somehow always wind up in the middle of the action.
It happens again in the series' terrific seventh installment titled "Slough House," just published by Soho Crime. This time out, someone's been killing off Slough House alumni and is now coming for the current crop. But why? The answer lies somewhere in an intelligence snafu that involves the ruthless head of MI5, Diana Taverner; a shambling but ambitious Boris Johnson-like politico, an online media mogul who cares more about making money than broadcasting truth, and that nice man in Russia, Vladimir Putin.
Now, if you've read the earlier Slough House novels - and if not, I urge you to start at the beginning with "Slow Horses" - you'll know that Herron tells his stories with extraordinary verve. He juggles multiple plot lines and reveals character in sharp, sardonic strokes, like this line about the Boris Johnson figure - (reading) achievement in other people was not something he admired. It was like watching someone else walk around in shoes he'd planned to buy.
Ricky Gervais' original "The Office" was set in the much mocked city of Slough. And in that tradition, the Slough House series is partly a workplace comedy whose employees do jobs they don't care about, spend hours getting on each other's nerves and earn nothing but contempt from their boss. Herron makes all his slow horses vivid, from egomaniacal tech whiz Roddy Ho, who everyone hates, to idealistic River Cartwright, whose granddad was a legendary spook to proper Catherine Standish, a now-sober alcoholic who had once been MI5's Miss Moneypenny then drank her status away.
At a larger level, Herron's plots deftly reflect the immoral lunacy of our current history, from terror attacks on malls to a certain member of the royal family partying inappropriately. This latest book is set in a post-Brexit U.K., and the subjects it weaves together could hardly be more timely - news outlets that manufacture slanted news, Russian assassinations on British soil, attempts to privatize the intelligence service and rich politicians tricking populist mobs into advancing their personal agendas.
Each of these topics is worthy of a le Carre novel, yet Herron's tone is not remotely le Carre's. He comes from a later generation, one that finds the world of espionage more comic than tragic. Indeed, one of the underlying themes of the Slough House books is that the intelligence services, like modern politics, have declined to the point of travesty. These days, the slicksters around MI5 are all about jockeying for power. They follow what Herron calls London Rules, whose key dictum is cover your backside.
Ironically, the grand exception is the egregiously offensive Jackson Lamb, whose scuzzy Falstaffian manner masks the brilliance of a George Smiley. Lamb was a spy back when you played by what he calls Moscow Rules - watch your back, or you and your agents will be dead. Although Lamb sneers at his slow horses, they're his slow horses, and that means he's responsible for them. The last remnant of British spying's glory days, Lamb may be a bullying slob, but he has an old-school sense of honor.
DAVIES: John Powers reviewed "Slough House" by Mick Herron.
On tomorrow's show, we speak with the founder of Bellingcat, an international collection of people who've become digital detectives using the Internet and social media to help solve crimes, report from war zones and separate facts from fake news. In conjunction with NBC News, Bellingcat just broke a story about the woman who stole Nancy Pelosi's laptop on January 6. I hope you can join us.
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DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
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