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Is Mick Herron the best spy writer of his generation?

Is Mick Herron the best spy writer of his generation?

“Don’t you ever talk about bloody axes and fingerprints and serial killers?” I asked disappointed.

“Once someone collapsed while I was lecturing,” Herron said. “Or no, that happened twice.” Fainted. “Or maybe he was sleeping?” However, no one had died.

Hilary put down her fork. “People say it, but it’s true. Crime writers get all their gruesomeness on the page. Personally, they are the nicest people.”

“Of course you want to scoop out the insides.”

Cartoon by Zachary Kanin

“It’s the novelists you have to watch out for,” Herron said. “Blood on the carpet, those people.”

After dinner I followed them down a dark cobbled alley to Burgage Hall, a packed room, noisy with chatter and gossip and smelling of wood smoke and damp wool. Piles of books were piled on folding tables on which wine and juice had been poured into plastic cups. A lectern had been pushed into a corner. Old men unbuttoned their coats and took off their caps; old women sat down on chairs. You could hear the sound of mud boots and the rattling of knitting needles. ‘Secrets and spies’ was the theme of the evening. It could be a garden club meeting.

In the morning Howard went out for a walk in the Malvern Hills, and Herron and I got on a train for Oxford. We sat at a laminated table, face to face, watching the rain spray past the windows as we raced through the sodden landscape. “See It, Say It, Sorted,” read the signs above each door, flashing green pixels.

In the age of terror, everyone is on the lookout, in trains, buses and planes – not only under surveillance, but also as a conductor. If you see something, say something. Lamb laments, “It’s like everyone’s a fucking spy.”

I had listened to each of Herron’s novels as audiobooks, performed by wonderfully versatile actors, with AirPods in my ears. I had felt like a secret agent, eavesdropping. (Julia Franklin, who shot the Oxford series, and Gerard Doyle and Seán Barrett, who shot the Jackson Lamb books, all told me to stop reading because they laughed.) Reading Herron, or listening to him, is like riding a carousel and switching animals every time it goes around. You’re in one person’s head, and then you’re in someone else’s, except, unnervingly, you’re hardly ever in Lamb’s. He’s a cipher, forever undercover.

Every passenger who sauntered past us on the train and squeezed his way wet down the aisle was absently noticed by Herron, as if he were tucking them away in a catalog of humanity. His slow horses come in every type, and they were kicked out of service for every foul imaginable. River Cartwright failed a training exercise. Min Harper left a disc labeled “Top Secret” on a train. Louisa Guy lost a gun salesman she was following. Marcus Longridge, who is black, is a gambler; and Shirley Dander, of ambiguous sexuality (don’t ask her), is a coke addict. Roderick Ho, a computer prodigy played in the Apple series by Christopher Chung, was sent to Slough House for being an idiot.

Ho is something of a writer himself, an inventor of fictional worlds; he’s amazed that he “can build a man from links and screenshots, launch him into the world like a paper boat, and he’d just keep sailing.” Herron loves Ho, the spy writer lost in a world of his own making. “There may come a point where I have to let him grow up a bit,” he admitted, “but then I’d probably have to kill him.”

The office chatter is brutal: “While Louisa Guy has been known to speculate that Ho is somewhere on the right side of the autism spectrum, Min Harper has usually replied that he’s well beyond that on the git index as well.” When Longridge insults Peter Judd and Dander warns him that he is hate speech, Longridge snaps, “Of course it’s hate speech.” I fucking hate him.

“I’ve had readers think I’m waging a war on political correctness,” Herron said, clearly annoyed. “I’m not. I’m all for treating each other decently. I don’t think Lamb is waging that war either.” Lamb plays with words and piss:

“I let others do the spadework.” He glanced at Marcus. “Just a sentence. Let’s not get the thought police involved.”

‘We have a SWAT team,” Marcus muttered.

Lamb also tries to get the people who work for him to quit, as he fears they will be killed. Most of what he does is done to save them. When a bad actor sneaks into Molly Doran’s record department and she orders him off and he says he’s “not taking instructions from a crip,” Lamb finds the man, breaks both his legs and asks him, “Who’s there now the crip?” ?”

Herron’s phone rang. It was Howard, who called to make sure we made it to the train, and asked Herron if he could pick up some sneakers she had forgotten at home.

“Yes, yes,” Herron said. “Hello sweetie.” And to me: “It’s too wet to go for a walk. She has gone to the shops.” We stared at the pelting rain.

Herron also enjoys writing Catherine Standish, to whom he’s given the most fully developed backstory – a disorderly and drunken past, deadly linked to Lamb’s own darkest deeds. “She’s more aware than anyone of how bad her life could have turned out,” Herron said. “I have that feeling about my own life.”

In 2017, after the books started to take off, Herron resigned from his day job. Not long after, he went to a sales and marketing meeting at John Murray’s. The name of the series was changed from the Slough House mysteries to the Jackson Lamb Thrillers. He was shown posters, advertisements and merchandise, right down to coasters printed with Lambisms:When am I not full of joie de fucking vivre?”

“You do realize,” Herron said slowly to the executives, “I’m killing him in the book I’m writing right now?”

Silence. Frustrating. More silence. “You tricked us, yes?”

Splashing through flooded rails, the train sputtered to a halt in Charlbury, a town on the edge of the Cotswolds, about twenty minutes from Oxford. A few passengers boarded, umbrellas trailing like tails. The doors closed. The train stood still as a stone, the rain pattered, the wind howled. Finally, the conductor said something over the speaker system that no one could understand because of the noise, leaving everyone as stunned as slow horses trapped in the subway. “Signaling problems,” muses a character in the third of the Slough House books. “These were often caused by heat, when they weren’t caused by cold, or things being wet or dry.”

People started muttering, grumbling, texting. Ten minutes later, the conductor’s voice came back – now screaming – to announce that the brakes were stuck and it would take at least an hour to get them off. Brexit cuts?

Herron and I trudged off the train and into the rain. The one-room station was closed. There were no buses into town or anywhere. No Ubers, no Lyfts. No taxi rank. We huddled in slickers under the station’s overhanging roof with half a dozen other stranded passengers, including a rosy-cheeked young man and his father, dressed in long wool coats. They had traveled from Worcestershire and the son, who couldn’t have been much more than twenty, was on his way to London for an interview, his first.

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

“Fund Accounting.”

“Oh, right. Do not worry. Its not far. You’ll be fine.”

The applicant nodded gratefully. Everyone tried to call taxi companies, using cell phones as streetlights. No one has answered. The rain picked up, and then the wind. It suddenly got quite cold. We were late, we were soaked and now we were freezing cold.

‘When we get to Oxford,’ Herron told me, ‘I’ve arranged for you to be robbed. Then the food poisoning starts around four o’clock.’

Finally a taxi pulled up. Two women dressed in fur coats and high boots came out of the train dry as bread and climbed inside. Herron and the aspiring fund accountant’s father stormed out into the rain, begging them to take another passenger. The son squeezed into the backseat. Herron knocked on the car window. “Good luck,” he said. “You’ll be great.”

Shuddering, he ran back under the roof of the station.

Rules in Moscow: beware. Rules in London: cover your ass. Slough House Rules: Joe Country is everywhere. Herron rubbed his hands for warmth and tried to wipe the raindrops off his glasses. My notebook was soaked. 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. ♦