From The New Yorker:
Mick Herron is a broad-shouldered Englishman with close-cropped black hair, lightly salted, and fine and long-fingered hands, like a pianist’s or a safecracker’s. He wears wire-rimmed glasses, and he is shy and flushes easily, pink as a peony. He does not drive a car and he does not own a smartphone, and, in the softly carpeted apartment in Oxford where, wearing woollen slippers, he writes spy novels—the best in a generation, by some estimations, and irrefutably the funniest—he does not have Wi-Fi. He used to be a copy editor. He has never been a secret agent, except insofar as all writers are spies and maybe, lately, so is everyone else.
Spy fiction got good and going in the years before the First World War, and took flight afterward. In 1927, W. Somerset Maugham wrote “Ashenden: or, The British Agent,” about a writer who is recruited into British intelligence by a handler called R. During the war, Maugham had been a spook; he was recruited after “Of Human Bondage” came out. Writers make good joes (as Herron might say): they’re keen observers, and they tend to know languages. (Maugham had French and German.) “If you do well you’ll get no thanks,” R. tells Ashenden, “and if you get into trouble you’ll get no help.” Editors say the same thing to writers.
Maugham’s best-known successors—Graham Greene, Ian Fleming, and John le Carré—were spies, too. Greene worked for M.I.6, Britain’s foreign-intelligence service; Fleming for Naval Intelligence; and le Carré for both M.I.6 and M.I.5, Britain’s security service. Like le Carré, whose wordcraft about spycraft included “mole,” “spook,” and “Moscow rules,” Herron’s got his own lingo, about “the hub” and “dogs” and “tiger teams” and “milkmen.” But Herron, as he himself might put it, has never been to joe country and lives nowhere near Spook Street.
For the longest stretch of Herron’s professional life, he worked in London in the legal department of an employment-issues research firm, copy-editing journal articles, handbooks, and case reports about employment discrimination and wrongful termination. Nights, he wrote detective fiction, and even got some published, but no one bought it. Then he had a breakthrough. “People say write what you know,” Herron says. “So I wrote about people who are failures.” Bob Cratchitting away at job-discrimination case reports, Herron came up with the idea of Slough House, a place where M.I.5 puts bad spies out to pasture. “Sack the useless, and they took you to tribunal for discriminating against useless people,” one character explains. “So the Service bunged the useless into some godforsaken annex and threw paperwork at them, an administrative harassment intended to make them hand in their cards. They called them slow horses. The screw-ups. The losers.” James Bond they are not.
The Slough House novels have been adapted as an Apple TV+ series called, like the first of those novels, “Slow Horses.” It’s slick and sleek and as star-studded as a summer sky. The first season came out last spring, and the second begins this month. Mick Jagger, a Mick Herron fan, recorded its bluesy theme song, “Strange Game.” Kristin Scott Thomas stars as Diana Taverner, Second Desk at M.I.5, with Jonathan Pryce as her long-retired predecessor, David Cartwright, whose grandson River Cartwright, played by the Scottish actor Jack Lowden, is a slow horse trying to kick over the traces. The cast is headed by the inimitable Gary Oldman, as Jackson Lamb. Lamb is an old joe who’s straight out of Dickens, if Dickens had ever invented a character who used the word “twat” all the time.
Even before John le Carré died, nearly two years ago, people had started calling Mick Herron his heir, which is, as publicists say, very selling, but also something of a burden. Herron suspects that le Carré would find his work facetious. Still, that’s not to say there aren’t similarities. A decade ago, Oldman was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of le Carré’s George Smiley in an adaptation of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.” Oldman says Jackson Lamb is Smiley if everything had gone wrong, although, arguably, everything has.
Link to the rest at The New Yorker