Soho Crime, 2010, 320 pages
Slough House is a dumping ground for British intelligence agents who've screwed up cases in any number of ways - by leaving a secret file on a train or blowing a surveillance. River Cartwright, one such "slow horse", is bitter about his failure and about his tedious assignment transcribing cell phone conversations.
When a young man is abducted and his kidnappers threaten to broadcast his beheading live on the Internet, River sees an opportunity to redeem himself.
Is the victim whom he first appears to be? And what's the kidnappers' connection with a disgraced journalist? As the clock ticks on the execution, River finds that everyone has his own agenda.
I've noticed that American and British spy thrillers, if they aren't action-adventures where the protagonists are modern-day superheroes, tend to be cynical about the intelligence business in different ways. "Gritty" books about the NSA or the CIA tend to be about American imperialism, or driven by the fear of fascists directing the apparatus of national intelligence. British cynicism, whether it's Le Carré or Mick Herron, tends to be more personal - the spooks may be furthering the agendas of British imperialism or would-be fascists, but mostly they're a bunch of self-serving, back-stabbing, brown-nosing ladder-climbers for whom "the mission" is at best a secondary consideration.
"How's your career looking?"
"Well, I don't have an arse two inches in front of my nose, so my view beats yours."
River Cartwright is an MI5 agent who screwed up a mission. It was supposed to just be a training op. He was a leading a team at King's Cross to simulate a response to a terrorist bombing plot.
"Blue shirt under white tee, or white shirt under blue tee?"
A little bit of color-coordination turns out to be rather significant to the plot. Let's just say Cartwright gets it wrong, and ends up shutting down King's Cross Station.
Having screwed up so spectacularly, he is sent to "Slough House," a home for retired-in-place intelligence officers where they are given tasks of such mind-numbing tedium that they're expected to quit. And yet, for various reasons, many of them don't.
The residents of Slough House are known as the "Slow Horses." Everyone knows their careers are at a dead end and they'll never be good for anything else again. Under the malignant gaze of their boss, Jackson Lamb, who of course has his own secrets and reasons for being consigned to Slough House, they are given dull, humiliating, and useless busywork, some of them still holding out hope for that big break that will bring them back to Regency Park and real spy-work again.
This opportunity seemingly comes when a young Pakistani-British youth is kidnapped by right-wing nationalists threatening to cut his head off in retaliation for jihadist atrocities. The young man comes from an important family, and the Slow Horses are the only ones who can find him before these home-grown British yobbos start a shitstorm.
Of course, nothing is as it seems, there are plots and counter-plots, double-agents and triple-crosses, and running throughout the book, a thread of deep, bitter cynicism as to whether anyone in Her Majesty's service actually gives a shit about anything but personal ambition or settling scores.
I have to say I found this book only okay - there were definitely some clever lines, but the plot was fairly predictable, I didn't really care about many of the characters (even the "good guys" are assholes), and it didn't hold my attention that well. It's the first in a series and I might read more about the Slow Horses, but Le Carré this isn't.
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