In New York City, teachers charged with misconduct whose cases are still pending are not allowed in the classroom but also can’t be fired. They are instead assigned to a “reassignment center” that is commonly called the rubber room. The teachers stuck in the rubber room don’t have any real work to do, but they must show up day after day until their cases are resolved or they quit in frustration. Mick Herron’s Slow Horses, the first novel in the series of the same name, brings the concept of the rubber room to the world of spy fiction. The Slow Horses are spies who’ve screwed up badly enough to be punished but who, for one reason or another, can’t quite be forced out of the service altogether. Cordoned off in a decrepit old office building known as Slough House, they fritter away their careers on useless make-work tasks, forever denied the chance to work on something important enough to redeem themselves in the eyes of the service.
River Cartwright is the newest arrival at Slough House. after screwing up a training assignment badly enough to cause real-world panic. He’s got multiple chips on his shoulder, sure that he’s taking the fall for someone else’s mistake while also aware that he’s only still got a job because his grandfather was a legendary spy. Desperate to earn his way back into the action, River is reluctant to listen to his new boss, Jackson Lamb. Lamb is a cantankerous, mean-spirited old hand who takes every opportunity to remind his underlings that they’re a bunch of useless fuck-ups who will never be given a serious mission again.
So when a nationalist group kidnaps a British Pakistani university student and threatens to behead him live on camera in just 48 hours, the reaction of the Slow Horses is a combination of shock, horror, and a bit of ruefulness that none of them will be anywhere near the effort to find and save the young man in question. Of course, it wouldn’t be much of a novel if that were really the case.
As the Slow Horses ham-handedly insert themselves into the case, the “real” British Intelligence community shows itself just as prone to sloppiness and misjudgments as the rejects. As their efforts run, occasionally in parallel but often in opposition, a young man facing brutal death tries to maintain his sanity, biding his time and hoping against hope for a rescue that might never come.
Herron is very good at creating a plausible scenario to showcase the strengths and weakness of spycraft itself. He shows the human frailty behind the profession and is able to inject levity into the narrative without sapping the story of weight or tension. By and large these are unserious people doing serious jobs.