The dark(ly comic) side of MI5
Page by: Jim Sullivan, 13/07/2022
Mick Herron’s seven Slough House novels have been shortlisted for eight CWA Daggers, winning twice, and shortlisted for the Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year four times. The first, Slow Horses, was picked as one of the best twenty spy novels of all time by the Daily Telegraph.
Slow Horses is now a series on Apple TV+, starring Gary Oldman.
I picked up Slow Horses when I was recovering from hip replacement surgery, and struggling to concentrate. The 7 books in the series flew past in a mixture of laughter and suspense. Thank you so much for helping me through a difficult patch!
Mick: That’s really kind, thanks. Like a huge number of other people – and like everyone reading this, I imagine – I’ve relied so much on books, on novels, to see me through these difficult years of the pandemic. Reading is, or can be, a gateway out of oneself, relief mingled with pleasure, and should be available to all.
Writing is a form of escape too, of course, but there’s more work involved – you have to dig your own tunnel. I’m happy to know that others are using tunnels I’ve dug.
The ‘Slow Horses’ are a bunch of MI5 misfits who’ve been sent to Slough House in the hope that they’ll give up and leave the service. Instead they get drawn into spy adventures, led by the HR nightmare who is Jackson Lamb. He has to be the least PC character in a 21st century novel. Did you ever feel you were pushing his character too far?
Mick: When I write, all I’m really thinking about is the page in front of me. I don’t much consider reader reaction; I don’t necessarily think about the bigger picture – big picture thoughts are for when I’m lying on the sofa, staring at the ceiling. Writing is always in the moment. So no, I don’t feel that I’ve ever pushed the character too far, because I am – as far as I’m concerned, and I’m the only one whose opinion matters at that precise moment – always faithful to how that character, how Lamb, would respond to the situation I’ve put him in. His reactions are true to the person he’s become, over the course of eight books. To tone him down would be dishonest.
There’s a level on which I feel sorry for all my characters: what did they do to deserve me?
How damaged is Jackson Lamb? Do you feel sorry for him?
Mick: There’s a level on which I feel sorry for all my characters: what did they do to deserve me? But with most of them, it’s clear what the damage is. With Lamb, the damage is hidden. The reader can, I hope, sense the self-loathing which drives at least part of his anger, but where that originates, I haven’t yet explored.
Could you take us through your writing process? Presumably you write full-time now, but when you were writing your early books you had a really punishing work schedule. It would be a great boost to our novelist readers to see what can be achieved with a modest daily word count and some dogged determination.
Mick: I do write full time now, which is a privilege I’m daily thankful for, but I’m grateful too for the years when I was working full time, because that’s when the habit of discipline set in. I commuted into London each day, and never wrote fiction on the train; instead, I mostly used that time to think about the work I’d do when I got home. By which time I’d have about an hour’s creative energy left, which translated into about 350 words. So for a long time – years and years – that was my daily target; it was how all the books, up to about halfway through This Is What Happened, were written.
What I had to learn when I began to write full time was that having, say, six hours straight in which to write didn’t translate to 6 x 350 words. The mulling over time, those hours spent on trains, had their part to play in the process. So I spend quite a lot of my day pottering around, to no evident purpose. Work, though, is being done …
On a similar theme – Slow Horses took a while to take off, didn’t it? So many authors chasing the same readers can be dispiriting. How did you handle the emotional aspect of this in the early days, while you were waiting for your audience to find you?
Mick: Well, I’ve never felt that I was chasing readers. When I was writing Slow Horses, I was pretty sure I’d found my professional level; that I’d never sell many books or have much notice taken of what I was doing. (My publisher at the time agreed with me, as it happens.) But that was liberating, in fact. If I’d been seeking mass approval, it would have been a very different book. But I wrote it to please myself, and have continued in that vein since. Though I suppose the emotional aspect of those early days – my acceptance that I’d never be commercially successful or critically noticed – found its way into the books. Let’s face it, I chose to write about characters whose careers had come to nothing …
The language of Slough House, the Park, the Dogs etc - you’ve created your own universe with its own internal logic. I suppose you have the luxury of knowing that the only people who could call you out for any inaccuracies aren’t allowed to. You’ve clearly built on John le Carre’s Smiley novels – how do you think he’d react to Slow Horses?
Mick: I suspect he’d have found my approach too facetious for his liking. But he may have approved of the anger that occasionally breaks out. He and I would have found a lot of common ground in our political views.
Writing can be very solitary – many of us do it partly for that reason, I suspect. What’s it like to see your books turned into a major TV series? Is it as much fun as we’d imagine?
Mick: For me, it’s been a tremendous experience, one I’ve enjoyed enormously. But I’m conscious that I’ve been very lucky, in that all involved – the writers, the producers, the director – went out of their way to remain faithful to the book. I’d not have been overly distressed if huge differences to the plot had been made, provided the show remained true to the tone and the characters. But in fact, both those things have worked out just fine. The team went further than just the extra mile; they went marathons, acquiring permission – to cite just one example – to use the frontage of the very building I based Slough House on. When the viewer sees those external shots of the slow horses’ base, that’s the real deal they’re looking at. (The Chinese restaurant is fake, though – I made that up.)
Mick, many thanks for speaking with us. What should we keep an eye out for next?
Mick: The new book, Bad Actors, is out on May 12. And Dead Lions will be streaming on Apple TV+ later this year.
I've already pre-ordered Bad Actors. Readers - you know what to do!
Posted in: crime-thrillers-mystery