In a long line of British espionage fiction writers, Slough House series author Mick Herron (“foremost living spy novelist in the English language,” New Statesman) takes London as his prime setting. And his rich portrayal of the contemporary city, not so much a backdrop as almost a character in its own right, is a large part of his stories’ appeal.
Herron’s city shares with John le Carré’s familiar elements of the capital’s spyscape: the anonymous service HQ; the safe house in an inner-city back street; the clandestine canal towpath and Thames-side meeting places; the restaurant, a very recognisable Fischer’s on Marylebone High Street. where classified documents are exchanged.
There are Dickensian and Conradian echoes too: the shop on Brewer Street where “old Miles” sells “Russian tobacco, Polish chewing gum and Lithuanian snuff” while hosting get-togethers for Cold War veterans and émigrés on the fringe of the espionage world in an upstairs room; Reginald “Dancer” Blaine’s seedy stationers near St Paul’s, also purveying guns and fake IDs.
But Herron has an insightful feel for the ordinary city we live in too: “Bookmakers and bed shops, bridal boutiques and barbers”; nighttime streets “unfurling…the gauzy reflections in puddles and windows that turned after-hours London into a kaleidoscope, made fast-food outlets and minicab offices brief flashes of wonder.”
Or take his description of the huddle of retail premises at Old Street tube station…“bookshop, card shop, coffee shop, key cutters…the flower shop, whose brief fragrance was a shower of light in the dark”. And above ground…“a familiar London medley of the weathered and the new; the social housing estate, and the eye hospital…the complicated façade of an office block straight from an SF comic.”
Not a Londoner – he spent years commuting from Oxford to a sub-editing job – Herron is ambivalent at best about the Square Mile (“the glass and steel world of money”) and, it seems, no fan of the Barbican, near where he worked. One of his characters describes it as an “Orwellian nightmare…a concrete monstrosity”, somehow managing to overcome being a “brutal piece of shit” to achieve “iconic” status, like “Ronnie and Reggie Kray before it”.
It’s a startling simile, highlighting that other London, whose sounds include the “tumbling wet slap of money being laundered”, where for those who “buy and sell and own and build, the past is simply a shortcut to what’s yet to come, and what’s yet to come offers magpie riches to those prepared to embrace the changes demanded. Or so the promises run”.
This is also Herron’s city: “an impermanent thing, its surface ever shifting, like the sea. And like the sea, a city has its sharks.” On a “normal day”, one of his characters muses, “London was bright and busy, full of open spaces and well-lit squares.” But “it was also trap streets and ghost stations; a spook realm below the real…a coded text beneath an innocent page”.
In this city, things aren’t what they seem. Fischer’s Viennese-style café has a “pleasing pre-war feel”, says one character. “Yeah. It opened in 2014,” is the reply. A gentleman’s club on Wigmore Street, sporting a plaque marking its founding “fifty-odd years ago” by a chap with a Victoria Cross, is actually the 20-year-old creation of someone very different.
The biggest fiction of all is Slough House itself on Aldersgate Street, the MI5 outpost at the heart of the novels and home to the “slow horses”, a band of failed spies relegated to mundanity under the Rabelaisian Jackson Lamb, hard-drinking, chain-smoking, wise-cracking, rule-bending old school spook, and at the same time pretty much the moral centre of Herron’s uncertain universe (perfectly realised by Gary Oldman in the TV adaptation).
Three storeys of run-down space above an “ailing Chinese restaurant and a desperate newsagents”, presenting a false front as a solicitors’ office, it is, pleasingly, a real building (with tourist walking tours surely coming soon). It’s one of those many city spaces you walk past, and wonder what exactly it is that goes on there – as Herron himself must have done.
This is Herron’s London then: satisfying layers of complexity and simulation, where suspicion thrives on seemingly familiar crowded streets. As one character says, “There were people everywhere – London, London – but nobody was paying attention, or if they were, were doing so in a successfully covert way.”
If there’s a message here – that nothing should be taken at face value, that money rules, that the corporate world and the contracted world of private security are the new threat, seducing our hapless or simply venal politicians while playing with the fires of extremism – it is imparted with humour, through satire rather than sermonising. Perhaps even some hope, that slow horse persistence might just win out. And all set in a London we know well – or do we?