The cold atmosphere of the German border between the West and the world “behind the iron curtain” marks the last act of secret agent Alec Leamas. “What do you think spies are?” he asked the woman he had loved in an unexpected way, against the rules, almost without right, but with the perfect convenience for London and the balance of this icy battle. “Moral philosophers who measure what they do by the word of God or by Karl Marx? No, they are not that. It’s a bunch of cretins like me.” With this sentence full of acuity and disenchantment, John Le Carré’s lyrics depict espionage as a dirty chessboard, guided by the pettiness of power and the ambition of its pawns. who want to cling to this geopolitical grid to the end. His gaze accompanies the twilight of this golden age of spy stories, an antidote to the glamor of Ian Fleming and his James Bond, upside down ideals flowers of the guardians of the world.
This man who seemed to have neither heir nor disciple found in Mick Herron the continuation of his portrait full of substance and cynicism, the dirty corridors in front of the meeting rooms of Regent’s Park, the loneliness and the punishment of the losers and the vanquished. So goes the universe slow horses, the Apple TV series based on Herron’s first novel about Jackson Lamb, the new mask of that gray future that awaited Leamas. If Richard Burton had given its nascent wrinkles to the creation of Le Carré in The spy from the cold (1965) by Martin Ritt, the Embittered Lamb finds in Gary Oldman the perfect incarnation, living in the catacombs of MI5, the “Swamp House” near the Barbican, in a nocturnal and sinful London. Times have changed, the war of doors is taking place in the heart of cities, and spies swarm in the bowels of power, rummaging through garbage cans, simulating terrorist attacks, recreating in these basements the same disputes of then.
“Le Carré was one of the authors who gave me permission to become a writer,” Herron said in an interview with Guardian Last year. “He showed me that you could invent a whole world and also invent your own language.” Unlike Le Carré, a member of the secret service before becoming a writer, Herron forged his narrative in the authenticity of the environment of the streets he walked every day and in the literary imagery of his upbringing in Oxford, passing from the climate post-war skeptic to the existential chaos of the 21st century. Employed as the editor of a tech-averse legal magazine — he didn’t have Wi-Fi at home until the pandemic — he spent his nights writing: First, The Oxford Series, the saga of researcher Zoë Boëhm, published in the 2000s but with little impact; then the Lamb saga which only achieved success in 2017 when the Waterstones bookstore converted to the novel slow horses in the “thriller of the month”, seven years after its first publication in 2010. From then on, the ecosystem of the Casa de la Ciénaga and the spies commanded by the veteran Jackson Lamb offered a modern face to contemporary espionage.
Adapted by screenwriter Will Smith – not the actor in the Oscar affair – and directed by veteran James Hawes, the Apple TV series perfectly recreates the tension of the novels at the same time as this dark and sticky atmosphere in which the agents evolve. . The first scene reveals the disgrace of young River Cartwright (Jack Lowden), an up-and-coming agent for a family of spies who finds himself confined to the swamp for a forced mistake. From there, his interaction with Lamb exposes the fate he was doomed to: a filthy and shameful office in which he performs the dark and inappropriate duties of the British Secret Service. The great character is Oldman’s Lamb, this face already known to spies since The mole (2011) –based on Le Carré and directed by Swedish director Tomas Alfredson-, a brilliant and bitter man, corroded by the darkness of his past, attached to his secrets and his indelible loyalties. “The people of the House of the Bog are a bunch of losers, but they are my losers,” she tells her Regent’s Park counterpart, the cold and ambitious director of operations Diana Taverner (Kristin Scott Thomas).
The axis of Lamb’s first adventure becomes the common thread of this inaugural season of slow horses: the kidnapping of a young Muslim by a far-right group calling itself The Sons of Albion. The public execution via YouTube is announced as the corollary of a day of incarceration in the heart of London. The wires of the investigation are processed at the offices of MI5 but it is Cartwright who tracks down a disgraced journalist waving the flags of nationalism and white supremacy. The silhouette of Peter Judd (Samuel West), opportunistic and unscrupulous politician who advances positions – the one Herron modeled in the youth of Boris Johnson in Oxford (“When I started writing history, I didn’t had no aspirations to succeed, so I could write without worrying about the repercussions”) – Taverner’s risky bets to increase the power of the secret service, and tensions between the far right and minorities serve as the backdrop to this underground corridor embodied by Lamb and his disciples, the work abandoned under the tables where decisions are made.
The appeal of Herron’s novels lies in the office bustle that takes place in and around La Casa de la Ciénaga: the Chinese restaurant where Lamb devours his dinner amidst the hustle and bustle, the pub where Louisa Guy (Rosalind Eleazer) and Min Harper (Dustin Demri-Burns) trade the lies of their lonely lives, the stalking circuits between Cartwright and Agent Sid Baker (Olivia Cooke), suspected of his talent and efficiency within this conclave of disgraced outsiders. “The spy plot is secondary for me – admits Herron-, what interests me are the characters and the links that are woven between them”, this dynamic that is concentrated in the Gothic mansion that houses the vices and nostalgia. With his bad temper, his scatological ways and his sharp tongue, Lamb is the king of this hell of secrets and betrayals, a muddy territory from which no one emerges clean. As Leamas said in that sad and lonely end of The spy returned from the cold“Do you think spies sit like monks thinking about the difference between good and evil? Today, the one who was my enemy yesterday is my friend because London needs him. He needs it so that the stupid masses you admire can sleep well, confident that someone is watching over their safety.