At MI5, if you screw up in a big way––like become a blackout drunk or punch out another agent in the lunchroom or let highly confidential material fall into the hands of the press––then you end up being moved from Regent's Park to Slough House. At Slough House, the "Slow Horses" are given endless, dull paperwork, in hopes they'll give up and resign.
In case the humiliation of becoming a Slow Horse, and the tedium of the work aren't enough encouragement to quit, Slough House boss Jackson Lamb turns up the discomfort level with a constant stream of insult, demeaning assignments (like picking up his takeout orders) and crude gross-outs, like aiming his deadly flatulence directly at his charges.
The current denizens of Slough House are made of sterner stuff, though, and won't be pushed into resigning. Or maybe it's just that they're too stubborn or stupid to realize the movers will never be taking them back to Regent's Park.
As the story begins, an old street agent named Dickie Bow is found dead on a bus near Oxford. Lamb figures out that is murder and that it's connected with a Cold War Russian spy named Alexander Popov––who may be real or may be a fiction created by MI5 back in the day. Nobody at Regent's Park would want to be bothered with this, Lamb thinks. They're far too busy spying and conducting disinformation campaigns on each other; probably not all that interested in some washed-up low-level stringer agent from a war they've all but forgotten. Lamb harnesses all the Slow Horses to work on the case; all, that is, except for the two who get a call from the Park to provide protection to a visiting Russian oil baron, Arkady Pushkin, while he's in London for some high-profile meetings and possible recruitment by the Park.
Did you notice that Alexander Popov and Arkady Pashkin have the same initials? One of the Slow Horses, Catherine Standish, does, and that worries her. At first, Lamb is dismissive: "Give me a break. I've got the same initials as . . . Jesus Lhrist, but I don't go on about it. This isn't an Agatha Christie." You'd better believe it isn't an Agatha Christie, and Lamb's crudity isn't the half of it. As Catherine's suspicions ferment, the plot bubbles with sleeper spies, Russian gangsters, riot in the streets, guns, explosions and mayhem in London's newest, loftiest skyscraper.
It can be a little difficult at times to keep all the Slow Horses straight, and the plot loses a bit of steam in the middle, but get past this and enjoy Herron's writing. It's full of style and cynical humor, and the last third has all the punch-your-lights-out action of a movie thriller––though the Slow Horses' nonexistent budget means that chases are on foot or bicycle, and weaponry is in short supply.
Slow Horses, Herron's introduction to the Slough House crew, was a finalist for the Crime Writers Association Steel Dagger Award in 2010.
Note: I received a publisher's review copy of Dead Lions.