Mick Herron talks to Simon Horsford ahead of the publication of his latest spy thriller, Joe Country, and his appearance at Topping & Co. on 24 June. He chats about why he wouldn’t make a good spy, how he creates memorable characters and how writing feels like an addiction
The constant wail of police sirens seemed somehow appropriate. Sitting opposite me in Oxford’s Varsity Club is Mick Herron, Britain’s new spymaster, a novelist well-versed in writing about the actions of the security services, but, aside from the occasional glance out of the window, he seems unfazed by the cacophony of sound on the street outside.
You’d expect nothing less from a writer who critics have acclaimed as the 21st-century’s answer to John le Carré and Len Deighton. Herron is, though, an author with a style of his own making and one who has brought caustic wit, piercing observation, and a contemporary spin to the world of spooks.
Ahead of the release of Joe Country, the sixth book in the Jackson Lamb Thriller series, I wonder if Herron himself would make a good spy. “Oh I doubt it,” he laughs, “no, I’m very impractical and not tech-minded at all, something you need to be these days. I’d be hopeless.” He doesn’t have the internet at home (he goes to the library to read emails), or a TV; his phone is an old-school Nokia.
And yet his books conjure up a world of spycraft so plausibly that they appear as the work of an insider; he even has his own spy lexicon. Is there an analogy to be made between the novelist and the spook? “I think there is, but then I’m making up my own truths and lies, so it’s an enclosed system.”
Herron’s own particular truths are created around a collection of disgraced/washed-up spies or joes (operatives in the field), who have been exiled to oblivion, otherwise known as Slough House, a grubby office block, near the Barbican in London. Each of its resentful denizens has screwed-up, or proven fallible in one way or another – losing files, having a drink or drugs problem – or has simply been in the way of someone more ambitious. Each is also seeking redemption, looking for a chance to get back into the game (and perhaps return to the hallowed surrounds of Regent’s Park MI5 headquarters). So away from their usual mind-numbing tasks, they are pitched – often by default or happenstance – into a range of cases, terrorist outrages, kidnappings or high-level conspiracies.
“I think failure is more interesting than success to write about,” says Herron. “Happiness can make less of an impact on the page, as opposed to failure, frustration, or thwarted ambition… Iago is a more interesting character than Othello in many ways because there is all that anger and energy there. Maybe that has touched a chord. Essentially, I am writing about people sitting in an office wishing they were James Bond – and that possibly covers quite a large part of the population.”
The current series of books began with Slow Horses in 2010, but with little publicity from the original publishers, it had limited impact. An editor at John Murray picked up a book at Liverpool Street Station and it was republished together with the second book Dead Lions in 2015. With some well-judged promotion by John Murray and word-of-mouth, Herron hasn’t looked back since.
At the time Newcastle-born Herron was working as an editor for a legal publishers in London and writing the books after his commute back to Oxford, where he has lived since he was an undergraduate. “I had long accommodated that I was writing books that weren’t going to be bestsellers and didn’t think I would ever be in a position to give up full-time work – it could very easily not have happened and came as a surprise… but my creative needs were satisfied. I think of writing as an addiction. With [the success of] Slow Horses, I felt validated and knew that this was the stuff I wanted to write.” He started writing full-time two years ago and aims to complete about 500 words a day while listening to modern or improv jazz.
In fact, Herron’s novel-writing had begun even earlier with the Sarah Tucker/Zoë Boehm detective series set in Oxford and the first book, Down Cemetery Road, published in 2003, provided an inkling of what was to come, with undercurrents of conspiracy and government misdoing.
In a sense – and unusual for today when first novels are often heavily hyped – Herron arrived late on the scene, only becoming a name after several novels (Joe Country is his 14th book). But that period below the radar has helped him hone his craft. Being an editor helped too: “reducing the words is part of the fun of the job, making sure all the information is there but in fewer words. Self-editing is a major part of the job. With Slow Horses, too, I found a tone of voice that I hadn’t had before.”
The current state of Britain is a topic where Herron has also put down a marker. His last novel London Rules involved random terror attacks, an embattled prime minister and a showboating, Brexit-encouraging Tory MP, whose strident wife is a columnist for a right-wing tabloid. “Farce and chaos are the governing elements of our political landscape at the moment, so for a writer like me, who has a bent towards the satirical and looking at politics, then, yes, it’s a great time. In 2016 when everyone was wondering ‘what have we done?’, I’m thinking ‘great’, but as a human being and as a citizen, I deplore where we are at now. It’s deeply divisive and I can’t really see how that can be resolved.
“The writing voice I have adopted is cynical and I am certainly more so than I was a few years ago. The more you look at what’s happened, it’s difficult to be idealistic or optimistic in the world today. With my caricatures, I pile on the worst characteristics I can think of, knowing that there are real people out there writing columns in newspapers, or standing up in parliament, and however badly I treat them in print, it doesn’t match the reality. Writing such things in a satirical mode isn’t much more than blowing raspberries, but it does make one feel a little better.”
Certainly, Herron’s plot lines are unnervingly believable and beautifully crafted. Joe Country, for instance, with its darker tone, weaves together a tale involving dead bodies and several stirrings from the past for the Slough House crew, which prompt Louisa Guy to search for a missing teenager and the rest of the team to head out into the “bad country”, plus, there’s a new slow horse (a disgraced operative) in town.
He is equally adept at putting the reader in situ, in particular the streets of London, and has a gift for description. Is he always on the alert for inspiration? “I don’t wander around with a notebook – I’m generally in more of a daze, really, lost in my own head. It’s the details that one makes up that count and how you put your plot onto the page and ensure that the characters’ motivations are all in place. I don’t do any research, I just make it up – if you invent enough details, it seems like it’s based on reality.
“When I write about London, for instance, I’m writing about my responses. I tend to be more inspired by vocabulary than by images, so when I see something striking, it only interests me in that I have the right words to describe it. I also don’t think of myself as a storyteller, but as a writer constructing sentences – that’s the part that really matters. Much of the plotting is done as I write and a lot of it is problem-solving.” Herron admits that he’s sometimes disappointed when he’s finished a book because “it’s not necessarily what I intended to achieve.”
His books conjure up a world of spycraft so plausibly that they appear as the work of an insider
If there is one thing, though, that fans of Herron’s books know him for, it’s the cast of characters, each of whom is so plausibly crafted. “I write from the inside of the characters so they all get their own scenes. You know what they think and feel, so even ones who are not necessarily those you’d want to spend time with in real life, like [IT whiz] Roddy Ho, for instance, hopefully come across sympathetically because you see his own internal workings. He has a lot of empathy too for Catherine Standish (former aide to the head of the service and a recovering alcoholic): “You don’t have to look very far around you to see damage in people,” Herron suggests. Adding to the interest is the high-character churn in the books, which keeps Herron and the reader ‘energised’.
The standout personality is Jackson Lamb, who runs Slough House. He is a truly epic literary creation: a flatulent, foul-mouthed, chain-smoking alcoholic who is determinedly un-PC. His rudeness is even-handed, however, and he will attack anyone on any grounds whatsoever. The twist is that Lamb is a hugely capable character, who always seems to be one step ahead of the game.
“He wasn’t meant to be so central,” says Herron. “He was going to be an unseen malign presence at the top of Slough House. I wasn’t going to have him on the page so much, but instead make people react to him. But as soon as he made an appearance, I realised I could have a lot of fun with it.”
“Reginald Hill [creator of Dalziel and Pascoe] was an inspiration to a lot of crime-writers of my generation. When a writer is fashioning a character who is larger than the page [like Andy Dalziel], you are just burnishing an archetype so it goes back to Falstaff, and the bawdy characters imagined by the Renaissance writer François Rabelais in literature. And they weren’t usually coppers, until Hill did it.”
But Herron, who is well-versed in the spy genre via Le Carré and Len Deighton and movies and TV shows (he avidly watches DVDs such as Spooks), admits influence is an odd thing. “Any new writer is, by and large, trying to eschew any conscious influence, because building your voice is an important part of becoming a writer, but I strongly believe that the influences that really matter to any writer are the voices they encountered in their late teens and young adulthood.
“Those are the ones that lodge in your mind, the lodestars you adopt. Agatha Christie was a pathway between kids’ fiction and adult fiction for me and I was reading a lot of American writers – Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Hemingway. I’ve been re-reading Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday and found it as all-consuming as I did when I was 16 or 17. The best spy novel I’ve read recently was Manda Scott’s A Treachery of Spies, which I think was wonderful. There seems to have been a revival in the genre since 2001.” He also name-checks fellow-espionage novelists Charles Cumming and Adam Brookes.
The unassuming Herron has certainly played a significant part in that revival, and with a TV series in the pipeline next year, he should be rewarded with even greater recognition and deservedly so. I, for one, can’t wait to see Jackson Lamb and the Slough House crew on screen.
Joe Country is published by John Murray on 20 June, and Mick Herron is appearing at Topping & Co Bookshop, The Paragon, on 24 June. £14.99, with a copy of the book