Is Mick Herron the Best Spy Novelist of His Generation?

“Don’t you people ever talk about bloody axes and fingerprints and serial killers?” I asked, disappointed.“Once, someone collapsed while I was giving a reading,” Herron offered. “Or, no, that happened twice.” Fainted. “Or maybe he was asleep?” No one had died, though.Hilary put down her fork. “People say it, but it’s true. Crime writers get

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

“Once, someone collapsed while I was giving a reading,” Herron offered. “Or, no, that happened twice.” Fainted. “Or maybe he was asleep?” No one had died, though.

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

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

Cartoon by Zachary Kanin

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

After dinner, I followed them down a dark, cobbled alley and into Burgage Hall, a packed space noisy with clatter and gossip and smelling of woodsmoke and damp wool. Stacks of books were piled on folding tables where wine and juice had been poured into plastic cups. A lectern had been pushed to a corner. Old men unbuttoned their coats and doffed their caps; old women settled on seats. You could hear the squelch of muck boots and the chattering of knitting needles. “Secrets and Spies” was the evening’s theme. It might have been a garden-club meeting.

In the morning, Howard headed out to go hiking in the Malvern Hills, and Herron and I boarded a train to Oxford. We sat at a laminated table, face to face, watching rain streak the windows as we sped through the sodden countryside. “See It, Say It, Sorted,” the signs above every door read, flashing green pixels.

In the age of terror, everyone’s on the lookout, on trains, buses, and airplanes—not just under surveillance but conducting it. If you see something, say something. Lamb complains, “It’s like everyone’s a fucking spy.”

I’d listened to each of Herron’s novels as audiobooks, performed by wonderfully versatile actors, with AirPods in my ears. I’d felt like a secret agent, eavesdropping. (Julia Franklin, who recorded the Oxford series, and Gerard Doyle and Seán Barrett, who recorded the Jackson Lamb books, all told me they had to stop reading for laughing.) Reading Herron, or listening to him, is like riding on a carrousel 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 traipsed past us on the train, wetly squeezing down the aisle, was noted by Herron, absently, as if he were tucking them away in a catalogue of humanity. His slow horses come in every type, and they got kicked out of the service for every imaginable screwup. River Cartwright failed a training exercise. Min Harper left a disk labelled “Top Secret” on a train. Louisa Guy lost a gun seller she was tailing. 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 whiz played on the Apple series by Christopher Chung, got sent to Slough House because he’s a twit.

Ho is himself a kind of writer, an inventor of fictional worlds; it amazes him 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 invention. “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 banter is brutal: “While Louisa Guy has been known to speculate that Ho occupies a place somewhere on the right of the autism spectrum, Min Harper has habitually responded that he’s also way out there on the git index.” When Longridge insults Peter Judd and Dander warns him that he’s using hate speech, Longridge snaps, “Of course it’s hate speech. I fucking hate him.”

“I’ve had readers who assume I’m waging a war against political correctness,” Herron said, plainly exasperated. “I am not. I’m absolutely all for treating one another decently. I don’t think Lamb’s waging that war, either.” Lamb’s playing with words and taking the piss:

“I let others do the spade work.” He glanced at Marcus. “Just a phrase. Let’s not involve the thought police.”

“We’d need a SWAT team,” Marcus muttered.

Lamb’s also trying to get the people who work for him to quit, because he’s worried about them getting killed. Most of what he does is done to save them. When a bad actor sneaks into Molly Doran’s Records Department and she orders him out and he says he doesn’t “take instructions from a crip,” Lamb finds the guy, breaks both of his legs, and asks him, “Who’s the crip now?”

Herron’s phone rang. It was Howard, calling to make sure we’d caught the train, and asking Herron if he could pick up some sneakers she’d forgotten at the house.

“Yes, yes,” Herron said. “Bye, sweetheart.” And to me: “It’s too wet to go walking. She’s gone to the shops.” We stared out at the slashing rain.

Herron also loves writing Catherine Standish, to whom he’s given the most fully developed backstory—a disordered and drunken past, fatally tied to Lamb’s own darkest deeds. “She’s more aware than any of the others how very badly her life could have gone,” Herron said. “I have that sense about my own life.”

In 2src17, after the books began to take off, Herron quit his day job. Not long afterward, he went to a sales-and-marketing meeting at John Murray. The name of the series had been changed from the Slough House mysteries to the Jackson Lamb Thrillers. He was shown posters, ads, and merchandise, down to drink coasters printed with Lambisms: “When am I not full of joie de fucking vivre?”

“You do realize,” Herron told the execs slowly, “that in the book I’m writing right now I kill him off?”

Silence. Fidgeting. More silence. “You’re having us on, yeah?”

Splashing through flooded tracks, the train spluttered to a halt at Charlbury, a whistle-stop town on the edge of the Cotswolds about twenty minutes from Oxford. A few passengers got on, umbrellas trailing them like tails. The doors closed. The train sat still as stone, rain pattering, wind rattling. Eventually, over the speaker system the conductor said something that no one could understand for the static, leaving everyone as mystified as slow horses stuck on the underground. “Signalling problems,” a character muses in the third of the Slough House books. “These were often caused by heat, when they weren’t caused by cold, or by things being wet, or dry.”

People started mumbling, grumbling, texting. Ten minutes in, the conductor’s voice came back—hollering now—to announce that the brakes were stuck and that it would take at least an hour to get them unstuck. Brexit budget cuts?

Herron and I trudged out of 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 stand. In slickers, we huddled under the station’s overhanging roof with half a dozen other stranded passengers, including a rosy-cheeked young man and his father, wearing long woollen coats. They’d travelled from Worcestershire, and the son, who couldn’t have been much more than twenty, was on his way to London for a job interview, his first.

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

“Fund accountancy.”

“Oh, right. Not to worry. It’s not far. You’ll be fine.”

The job candidate nodded gratefully. Everyone tried calling taxi companies, using cell phones like road flares. No one answered. The rain picked up, and then the wind. It grew, suddenly, quite cold. We were late, we were soaked, and now we were freezing.

“When we get into Oxford,” Herron told me, “I’ve arranged for you to be mugged. Then the food poisoning will kick in around four.”

At last, a taxi pulled up. Two women dressed in fur coats and high boots emerged from the train, dry as toast, and climbed inside. Herron and the aspiring fund accountant’s father dashed out into the rain and begged them to take one more passenger. The son squeezed into the back seat. Herron rapped the car window. “Good luck,” he said. “You’ll be great.”

He ran back under the station roof, shivering.

Moscow rules: watch your back. London rules: cover your ass. Slough House rules: everywhere is joe country. Herron rubbed his hands for warmth and tried to wipe the raindrops from his glasses. My notebook was drenched. I asked him why he avoids writing from inside Jackson Lamb’s head, and he said, “Because I don’t want to break him.” The rain fell like a veil. ♦

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