A Spy Story

Some issues raised bySlow Horses’, which I read whilst in France

Slough House is the second best representation of hell that you could ever invent. It doesn’t quite beat Mariupol before its surrender, although unlike Slough House this beleaguered city could offer plenty of heroic tales, kind deeds and noble acts to counter the onslaught of Putin’s bombs. 

Our recent long walk/pilgrimage in France offered us time aplenty to read. And that was exactly what you wanted after six hours on the ‘chemin’, especially when the sun was overhead. I’d taken ‘Slow Horses’ by Mick Herron, a spy thriller that we discussed at our neighbours’ book club shortly after our return. It did engage me, kept me turning the pages, and if you like intrigue you may thoroughly enjoy reading it. But it also disturbed me.

The Slow Horses are failed MI5 agents, the name being a corruption of Slough House set in London’s Barbican district where they’re based. The building is unloved, mouldy, needs a complete overhaul but won’t ever have money invested. Nobody trusts anyone else; an innocent-looking colleague may be a ‘plant’. Years of being ‘shafted’, and of political infighting, have left the agents scarred and cynical, unable to enjoy relationships outside work. The scant conversation that takes place provides little real communication. It’s littered with expletives, sly digs, insults, references to past failures. Acts of kindness are rare. Most of this culture pervades the entirety of MI5.

It’s a novel, yes, but in many ways I believe Slow Horses does describe the spy world for real. Haven’t we created a monster that’s as evil as the beast it is created to slay? Is it really necessary? After all, developing countries don’t have spy agencies, do they?


I also read some devotional studies by Archbishop Justin Welby, based on the New Testament book of 1 Peter. Peter’s letters were written to encourage persecuted Christian communities who were tempted to buckle under pressure from the authorities. Listen to the way Peter is encouraging these believers to treat one another, so completely removed from the culture at Slough House:

“Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart.” (Ch 1 vs 22). And…

”Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing. (Ch 3 vs 8,9)

Of course, we’re talking about two different worlds! Espionage, by its nature, is cold, hard and cynical, and you could hardly expect the Bible or Jesus to talk about it. That’s the last place we’d ever expect any sort of guidance on the matter, surely…


 But look closer. The Jewish leaders sent spies to suss out Jesus. They tried to trap him between offending the Romans and denying their sacred Law, waiting to pounce when he incriminated himself. They planted sick people in the synagogues on the sabbath, waiting to see if Jesus would do ‘work’ by healing them. And even worse, Jesus became aware that he had a traitor amongst his disciples! How did he cope?

We’re told that Jesus saw through the Jewish leaders’ tricks. Time and time again, he amazed them at his answers which cut to the heart of the matters they brought up. So, what advice did he give to his disciples? Firstly, he said, I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore, be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10 vs 16).

Secondly, he told them that when they were on trial, the Holy Spirit would give them ‘a mouth and wisdom’ that their enemies couldn’t withstand. Trust God for a heavenly answer!


 If we could ask Jesus his opinion on spy agencies, what would he say? It seems to me his ‘serpents and doves’ statement is saying, ‘You’ve got to be aware of evil and to deal with it. But don’t let it make you behave the same way’. Unfortunately, we do have to take seriously the threat of foreign interference, for example in our elections, and of state-sponsored industrial and military espionage. We need to take steps to counter it. But that doesn’t mean we stage coups of our own in far-off countries. We shouldn’t be contriving fake atrocities of our own to discredit groups we don’t like – the end doesn’t justify the means. And in my view, we may need MI5 and MI6 but we don’t need them to be organisations full of dysfunctional people in order to keep us safe.

   In the end, the ‘Slow Horses’ become a little more human, less downtrodden, and recover a measure of self-respect. But it’s still not heaven. I’d love to have Jesus spend a day at Slough House and for me to be a fly on the wall…

5 thoughts on “A Spy Story

  1. Although Bad Actors meanders a bit, it is still almost as compelling a read as Slow Horses. Mind you, that’s not surprising: on Amazon, Mick Herron is described as “The John Le Carré of our generation” and it’s all to do with bad actors and slow horses. Who would have thought le Carré might be associated with “any generation”! In terms of acclaimed spy novels, Herron’s Slough House series has definitely made him Top Of The Pops in terms of anti-Bond writers. For Len Deighton devotees that ends a long and victorious reign at number one.

    Raw noir espionage of the Slough House quality is rare, whether or not with occasional splashes of sardonic hilarity. Gary Oldman’s performance in Slow Horses has given the Slough House series the leg up the charts it deserved. Will Jackson Lamb become the next Bond? It would be a rich paradox if he became an established anti-Bond brand ambassador. Maybe Lamb should change his name to Happy Jack or Pinball Wizard or even Harry Jack. After all, Harry worked for Palmer as might Edward Burlington for Bill Fairclough in another noir but factual spy series, The Burlington Files.

    Of course, espionage aficionados should know that both The Slough House and Burlington Files series were rejected by risk averse publishers who didn’t think espionage existed unless it was fictional and created by Ian Fleming or David Cornwell. However, they probably didn’t know that Fairclough once drummed with Keith Moon in their generation in the seventies.


    1. Thank you, MI6, for commenting, and explaining where Slow Horses fits into this genre of spy thrillers. I didn’t realise it has been made into a film, too. It’s a tribute to the book that I felt I had to post a blog about it! And I’m tempted to read Bad Actors as a result…


      1. Slow Horses is on Apple TV. Bad Actors is best if you are British. Give Beyond Enkription a read if you are anti-Bond or pro-Deighton!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: