Pages & Pictures: What I’ve Been Reading & Watching This Week

Books, Film, Media

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’?

19 comments on “Pages & Pictures: What I’ve Been Reading & Watching This Week”

  1. Martin says:

    I’m in London currently so my reading all has a certain theme to it . For a guidebook, Curiocity. Reread Ackroyds London a biography before leaving. And currently reading Dark city by Simon Read. I thought that reading Bryant and Mays peculiar London would be perfect, but alas, no one at Doubleday was able to get me an arc today.

  2. Stu-I-Am says:

    @admin Of the three, I share only the Barnes’ ‘Arthur and George’ so far. I’ve been meaning to ask how you find and decide, in general, what you read — but out of curiosity, how did you happen to pick up ‘Arthur and George,’ in particular ? It’s been around since 2005.

    I agree that reading Barnes is often like work but usually, in the end, a worthwhile effort. For example, not only does he take that ‘deep dive’ (with some ‘artistic license’) into the true-life ‘Great Wyrley Outrages’ and Conan Doyle’s personal life (speaking of ‘writer’s block’), but he sets Arthur’s sections in the past, whilst George’s are in the present. (Pause for collective pursing of lips) But it works.

    Although ‘Arthur and George’ is perhaps Barnes’ best known effort in the crime genre — being gratifyingly close to what Sherlock Holmes fans wanted to believe (and a good 2015 ITV/PBS(US) three part TV adaptation with Martin Clunes and Arsher Ali as ‘Arthur’ and ‘George’ respectively)) — he did write the ‘Duffy’ four-novel series about a bisexual private eye and ex-cop with a ‘phobia of ticking watches and a penchant for Tupperware,’ under the pseudonym of Dan Kavanaugh.

  3. Stu-I-Am says:

    An interesting (and significant) sidelight of the George Edalji case (‘Arthur and George’) was the eventual judicial finding that his conviction was an ‘unsafe verdict’ or miscarriage and was thus overturned — but only with great difficulty. Edalji’s laborious pardon followed the campaign in which Conan Doyle played a prominent role and was a key factor in the establishment of the Court of Criminal Appeal (England and Wales) in 1907. Its predecessor appellate court for criminal cases, the Court for Crown Cases Reserved, could only hear appeals on a point of law.

  4. Cary Watson says:

    lThe spy novels of Joseph Hone are hard to find, but are arguably the best in the “literary” spy novel field. He also had a strange connection with P.L. Travers, author of Mary Poppins. Here’s a link to his piece on the relationship:

  5. Ed+DesCamp says:

    Have read the first two Slough House books, and will keep on with the series. Arthur and George was an interesting piece of history and well enjoyed. I missed the Martin Clunes series but will look it up.
    Thanks for your great recommendations, I’m watching an extremely long library list get longer. Never enough time!

  6. davem says:

    I have enjoyed all of Mick Herron’s Slough House books … and they get better throughout the series as the characters develop.

  7. Stu-I-Am says:

    I was sent an advance copy of Tina Brown’s new book ‘The Palace Papers’ by a misguided friend at the publisher. It will be officially published in three days (26 April). For those whom ‘The Diana Chronicles’ wasn’t sufficient, or can’t get enough of the Harry and Meghan soap opera — or go all aquiver with excitement at the mention of ‘Palace intrigue’ — this one’s for you. On the other hand, if like me, you simply don’t care — even while sparing a kind thought for Her Majesty in this Platinum Jubilee year — and although well-written as might be expected — I care even less (if that’s possible) now having read it — as a courtesy, mind you. Off to the regifting stack.

  8. Helen+Martin says:

    The Slough Horses are items of fascination for me. I blame Chris for opening my mind to twisted versions of reality. And I’m not really sure how twisted Mr. Herron’s version of reality is. That in turn opened me to Charles Stross and who knows where next. I feel compelled to read Mr. Stross twice before returning his work to the library. (I’m losing track of the various Operations and their code names.)

  9. Do read the book Slow Horses before watching it on TV. It’s an “anti-Bond” masterpiece and the film is captivating too. Raw noir espionage of this quality is rare, whether or not accompanied by occasional splashes of sardonic hilarity. Slow Horses is an “anti-Bond” classic from the same genre of thoroughbred stables as the fictional Harry Palmer, Carter or Cole, based on Len Deighton’s spy novels or the fact based Edward Burlington, the protagonist in The Burlington Files espionage series by Bill Fairclough. If you enjoyed any of these you should delight in Slow Horses and vice versa.

  10. Stu-I-Am says:

    Gives new meaning to ‘living with fiction.’ Can talking PCU holograms be far behind ? NYT Fictosexuals

  11. Richard says:

    The Slough House novels, I think, are best read in sequence, and as davem says, they get progressively better. CF’s healthy influence is unmistakable.

  12. mike says:

    Out of context but congratulations on making the Daggers Short story longlist

  13. Ed+DesCamp says:

    @Daniel: dammit, I hate it when I hear about an author and find I’m a) years too late to the party, and/or b) the author’s works aren’t available in these Untied States of Murika. Fairclough must make for very interesting reading.

  14. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Ed+DesCamp Ed, the status of the remaining five ‘fact-based novels’ of ‘The Burlington Files’ is as mysterious as the author and the intelligence activities in the series. As best as I can determine, they are in completed manuscript form and titled, but remain unpublished pending a film deal for which they and the first book, which has been published, (‘Beyond Enkription: The Burlington Files’) apparently were originally written. Most inexpensive way to read it is via the ebook version (Kindle). Very good read, btw.

  15. Helen+Martin says:

    No reference in our library for either The Burlington Files or its author. Will try Vancouver and of course one could always buy a copy.

  16. The Slow Horses books are great, but the audible unabridged versions read by Sean Barrett are fantastic. His Jackson Lamb is even better (audibly) than Gary Oldman’s version. The streaming series have also just done a big reveal that isn’t in the books yet.
    Surely Apples competition could pick up the Bryant and Mays and give them a run for their money. Chris’s books and characters deserve a far wider audience, and the humour is gentler usually.

  17. Sam Turner says:

    Details of the three versions of Beyond Enkription

    Beyond Enkription: The Burlington Files 05.03.2014
    Paperback Createspace Amazon
    ASIN: 1497314186
    ISBN: 1497314186
    ISBN 13: 9781497314184
    Library of Congress Control Number: 2014906166
    Print length ‏ : ‎ 404 pages
    CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
    North Charleston, South Carolina, USA

    Beyond Enkription: The Burlington Files 16.08.2015
    Hardcover Dolman Scott Ltd
    ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1909204722
    ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1909204720
    ISBN: 978-1-909204-72-0
    Print length ‏ : ‎ 508 pages
    1 High Street, Thatcham Berks, RG19 3JG England

    Beyond Enkription: The Burlington Files 05.03.2014
    Kindle eBook ASIN ‏B00KBA75DE
    Print length ‏ : ‎ 445 pages

  18. Sam Turner says:

    The data about Beyond Enkription was given in response to the queries raised above by Stu-I-Am and Helen+Martin. The books are on Amazon worldwide and at most posh bookshops! The situation regarding which novels have been published in The Burlington Files series is published on website.

  19. Helen+Martin says:

    Thank you, Sam. People on this site are so generous; they answer questions almost before they’re asked.

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