Finding a Way In
Crime writer Mick Herron's first Jackson Lamb novel, Slow Horses, was described as the 'most enjoyable British spy novel in years' by the Mail on Sunday and picked as one of the best twenty spy novels of all time by the Daily Telegraph. The second, Dead Lions, won the 2013 CWA Goldsboro Gold Dagger. The third, Real Tigers, was shortlisted for both the CWA Goldsboro Gold Dagger and the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger, and the Sunday Express wrote that it 'revitalised the spy thriller genre'. Like its predecessors, his latest Jackson Lamb novel, Spook Street, is set in the Borough of Finsbury, which ceased to exist in 1963. Below, exclusively for Foyles, Mick describes the process of 'finding a way in'.
Author © photo Lee Gillies
For some years now, a large part of my creative life has taken place in a dismal collection of offices, spread across three floors, in a fictional borough of London which nevertheless exists in the real world. I’ve never set physical foot on these premises. The closest I’ve come is a view from the top deck of a passing bus, from which height I’ve also been able to read the street sign above one of the office windows, way above pedestrian level. ALDERSGATE STREET it reads, in block caps, followed by the postal district: EC1. And above that, in smaller lettering – but also capped – BOROUGH OF FINSBURY. The Borough of Finsbury hasn’t existed since 1963, when it was absorbed into the City of London.
That might have been the way in. A borough that no longer exists; a perfect place for the hideaway beginning to take shape in my imagination: the Intelligence Service’s 'administrative oubliette', where those whose careers similarly don’t exist any more are sent to while away the years until boredom or despair encourages them to pull the plug.
There was no shortage of candidates to fill those offices. Jackson Lamb rolled up first. A Cold War warrior curdled by his past – unless he’d always been that way – and a man never to use two words if a handy obscenity might make them three. He would be the brain of Slough House, or perhaps even its soul – a lost one, more than likely, but one that chose its own damnation. And as for its heartbeat, that would be Catherine Standish. This wasn’t how she started out, though. Her initial role was that of an almost mute chatelaine; a governess figure, who would quietly move files around in the background, and clean up her colleagues’ messes, while rumours floated in her wake about her alcoholic past. But the quiet fortitude with which she faced her daily battle against her demons won the respect of her author as well as – perhaps more grudgingly – of her colleagues. And the fact that her most pugnacious demon is Jackson Lamb simply added to her appeal.
And then there’s River Cartwright, the would-be 007, whose whole life has been geared towards a future in the Service – he’s grown up on tales of the Cold War, and the bravery and heroism of the joe in the field. He was going to be the agent behind the lines, wherever those lines turn out to be. One of them surely, would be a line on which he’d be prepared to lay his life. But instead of all that, he’s in one of those offices, amassing statistics on hire-car usage and the like. Small wonder he’s apt to jump blind into harm’s way at every opportunity. Excitement was what he thought he was built for. Turns out he’s more like a monkey on a stick.
So maybe he was the way in, though it turns out that even in the fiction I designed for him, as in the life he imagined himself leading, he’s been pushed to the margins a little, the inevitable consequence of the way my interest in his colleagues has expanded. Louisa Guy, Shirley Dander, Min Harper, Marcus Longridge; even Roddy Ho, the spectacularly unlovely computer jockey, have all turned out to exercise a claim on my attention.
There seemed to be many different entrances, then, which makes it somewhat ironic that there turned out to be only one – the back way. Because the front door of Slough House has remained closed for years without number; possibly isn’t a real door at all, but a dummy wedged between two commercial premises. No, anyone wanting to enter Slough House has to go round the back, through a mildewed alley, and negotiate a door which always seems to stick, because of the cold or the heat or the wet or the dry. That, then, was the way in, as I discovered when I wrote the first few pages of the first novel, and that door turned out to be as much help as hindrance.
Because it means that forcing your way out of Slough House is just as awkward as finding an entrance. And now I’m in here, I’m in no great hurry to leave.