Book Review: Slow Horses

Slow Horses
Slow Horses

I watched Slow Horses when it was first released on Apple TV+. It quickly became one of my favorite streaming series. Great cast, interesting characters, and English spy craft. The series is based on Nick Herron’s series Slough House (rhymes with cow).

I heard his books described as a modern Le Carre so I avoided them… I find Le Carre slow. I could never become invested in the story or the characters. Oddly, though, I liked many of the movies or series based on Le Carre novels, such as Tinker, Tailor, Spy, and A Most Wanted Man. I tried Slough House and read along while re-watching.

Each 6-episode season is based on one book; the first season is Slow Horses. I’d read to a point, then catch up with the series. I’d never done this before; usually I’ll watch the movie or series after finishing the book.

The first 4 episodes are almost beat-by-beat from the novel. It was fun hearing the exact lines taken from the book, especially from Lamb (SH is an ensemble, but Gary Oldman as Lamb is the star). The minor changes jump out, like Ho (the techie) not wearing glasses or living in a different house. And makes me wonder why they made these slight changes.

The series drifts from the book over the last two episodes; the plot around the kidnappers is very different. They add time with the kidnappers and the victim.

This is my main criticism of the book (lesser, as Herron only spends a few pages with the kidnappers) and series; the “bad guys” aren’t interesting. The genuine conflict in SH is between the members of Slough House themselves (who treat each other delightfully horribly), Jackson Lamb vs his own team, and Slough House vs the main MI5. Any time spent away from the central characters appears an un-necessary distraction. And the main kidnapper/bad guy in the series is cartoonishly evil and unrealistic.

The show runners for the series could have handled the kidnapping in the abstract by using news reports, intel, and keeping the camera with the main characters. It felt like they didn’t trust the viewer enough.

Other aspects of reading while watching were interesting. Namely, as a reader, I didn’t have to conjure pictures of locations (the notable Slough House or the starkly contrasted MI5), how the characters looker or spoke, or even the general vibe. I would have come up with a slightly different take on River Cartwright… I would have had him more serious, while Jack Lowden plays him with a lighter touch.

Slow Horses is a good read, far better than any Le Carre I’ve ever attempted. I want to read and rewatch with the other two novels, and contrast the experience to reading one that hasn’t been turned into a season. Herron’s writing is a perfect combination of smart, literature-esque, strong characters but with a strong plot that moves. Highly recommended.

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