September 04, 2023

The Secret Hours

By Mick Herron
Review by
Sly and suspenseful, The Secret Hours is both a marvelous standalone novel and a stunning companion to Mick Herron’s Slough House series.
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The Secret Hours is a slow burning, artfully told and explosive excavation of the messy era of post-Cold War espionage. 

In the modern-day British countryside, a spry sexagenarian with combat skills goes on the run after thwarting an attempted abduction from his home in sleepy north Devon. The attack feels unreal and disorienting after years of quiet living undercover as a retired academic, a life of “long walks, cooking slow meals, losing himself in Dickens”—not taking down potential assassins.

About one day earlier in London, two MI5 civil servants are wrestling with a career-killing task: investigating whether the U.K.’s elite intelligence service has overreached and abused its authority in covert operations. But much like being exiled to Slough House, the purgatory for spies at the center of Herron’s award-winning series (and its acclaimed Apple TV+ adaptation, “Slow Horses”), to which The Secret Hours is a prequel, the so-called Monochrome inquiry is a dead end. A “screw-up start to finish is one of the kinder assessments.” Leading the halfhearted charge is Griselda Fleet, a middle-aged Black woman worn down by decades of marginalization. Her second-in-command is the frustrated, formerly high-flying Malcolm Kyle, who blames Griselda for what the commission has become. 

To Mick Herron, failure is more interesting than success.

It’s been two years of wading through pointless and irrelevant testimonies from low-level employees, and they’re nearing the end of their remit with nothing to show for it. A bombshell of a case file has mysteriously landed in their laps but, confoundingly, they’re told to shut it down. Instead, Griselda and Malcolm call the central party to testify. 

That witness, code named Alison North, starts slow but then blows the doors off the sleepy inquiry, adding a crucial third track to an already complex plot. Like Dan Fesperman’s excellent Winter Work, North’s story within a story takes place in volatile, quasi-unified Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall, in the treacherous “Spook Zoo” that is early 1990s Berlin. As the past reshapes our perspective on the present, Herron plays with narrative form. Rather than separating timelines by chapter, the conversation and comments of 21st-century inquisitors Malcolm and Griselda intermingle with and interrupt the witness’ riveting retelling. North slowly unearths the truth behind a classified op gone tragically wrong, recasting three decades of U.K. intelligence history and its present-day players in a radical new light. Equally pithy and dark, Herron is as masterful in depicting the day-to-day drudgery of the spy-versus-spy game as he is its most incendiary events, all leading up to a spectacular climax. With shifting covers and code names in play, it’s fascinating to decipher how the operatives Slough House fans already know figure into this post-Cold War spy history, and it’s delightful to watch the pieces slowly click into place. 

Sly and suspenseful, The Secret Hours is both a marvelous standalone novel and a stunning companion to Herron’s Slough House series.

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The Secret Hours

The Secret Hours

By Mick Herron
Soho Crime
ISBN 9781641295215

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