Pages & Pictures: What I’ve Been Reading & Watching This Week
Slow Horses – Mick Herron
A confession; I struggled with the first of Herron’s Slough House books, thrown by its jocular tone, and decided to wait for the televised version instead. I’m glad I did, because the series seems different to what I read.
Herron’s natural joviality and quirkily dark sense of humour shone from the pages but – for me at least – left the plot a tad exposed as a reshuffle of genre tropes. I understand the books get richer, and I’ll definitely be revisiting them in the light of the TV series.
Apart from John Le Carré, spook shenanigans have always left me cold. I assume that in spy novels everyone is capable of betrayal and the ultimate result is disillusionment with the service. My favourites from the past have been ‘A Most Wanted Man’ and ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’, both Le Carré. Apple TV’s version of ‘Slow Horses’ looks and sounds like a BBC venture, slick and smart, if ultimately narrower in range. But there’s plenty of time for it to grow.
The set-up is terrific; Slough House is where those who have screwed up at MI5 are stranded, a rundown building in Smithfields presided over by a decrepit burnout. Hmm. Group of unemployable misfits ruled by irascible, unhygienic old man – where have I heard that before?
Don’t worry, though, because that’s where the similarities end. The farting, sweaty, sweary Jackson Lamb is played by Gary Oldman, one of our most magnificent actors, here in all his nicotine-stained glory. Unable to open his mouth without wounding his long-suffering staff, he’s ridiculed by the privately educated drones at The Park (a gigantic MI5 office) and especially by Kristin Scott-Thomas at her iciest, displaying all the rancour that only a middle-aged woman with no body fat can summon.
It’s a pleasant change to see spooks meeting on scruffy canals instead of docks and tall buildings, but some of the narrative shorthand reduces overall believability and certain characters, like the far-right politician, feel very much of their time. The requirements of hitting a wide audience have inevitably flattened out some of the book’s quirks, but Mr Herron should be very pleased with the result.
There are six episodes in this first book adaptation with plenty more seasons to follow, I hope, and it’s safe to say that we’ll be finding out a lot that will mitigate Lamb’s misanthropic nature along the way. The biggest problem for the slow horses is finding themselves on Apple TV, which is very much the runt of the streaming litter – but that may change.
Arthur & George – Julian Barnes
Barnes is a famously ‘difficult’ author, wide-ranging, intellectual, ruminative, didactic. He dives deep into any subject he chooses to explore, sometimes exhaustingly so, but there is always a golden thread of humanity that connects him to the reader.
‘Arthur & George’ is the closest he may ever come to penning a murder mystery. Taking its cue from a little-remembered true case, it traces the lives of two men, a modest half-Indian solicitor, George, and Arthur Conan Doyle, at the peak of his fame.
The business that connects them is the wrongful imprisonment of George for horse mutilation. The conviction of George marks the climax of decades-long harassment by someone who wishes him harm. Conan Doyle is routinely conflated with his fictional detective by the public, and finds himself investigating the business.
All this is a peg on which to hang the larger subjects of fidelity, faith, guilt, race and class. Much of the narrative is suspended in favour of emotional exploration, particularly of the three women who influence Conan Doyle’s life; his wife, his mother and his mistress. In the hands of say, Peter Ackroyd, the telling would be more straightforward, but with Barnes one must expect digression. He is such a fine, clear writer that the detours (all tributaries feeding into the same river) are a pleasure, and fresh light is thrown on Conan Doyle’s thought processes. One could argue that Arthur the writer is a more interesting character than George the solicitor, which makes George’s climactic attendance of a spiritualists’ meeting rather a slog, but it’s a powerful, moving read.
A Hard Day/ Restless (‘Sans Répit’)
This script has been filmed quite a few times in various countries, which tells you how culturally adaptable its plot is. ‘A Hard Day’ is the Korean original by Kim Seong-hun, ‘Restless’ the French remake starring Franck Gastambide, and both play out like the kind of cop movie Hollywood stopped making when home video died.
Tarnished cop Thomas makes some seriously lousy decisions after a hit and run leaves him trying to hide a body in his own mother’s coffin – a trick that’s achieved with the aid of a toy soldier and a length of string, but if you’re going to start worrying about believability we’ll be here all night.
The original escalates in a Korean switchback style that the French version can’t quite emulate, although the Gauls have an ace up their sleeve with dodgy cop Gastambide, who comes over somewhere between The Stath and an orphaned puppy. Thomas soon leaves reality in the dust as he heads for a fiery showdown, equipping himself with bombs, knives and guns.
Bringing up the distaff side are a smart-mouthed black female cop and a hand-wringing wife, but this one belongs to the boys. While none of us need a return to the days of thick-ear macho cop movies, too many touchy-feely-empower-yourself Netflix dramas occasionally leave you wanting something that’s a bit less healthy – and ‘Restless’ fits the bill nicely. May I suggest perhaps a double-programme with ‘Crank’?