In 2013, Mick Herron’s rickety literary career looked to be falling apart. None of his novels had sold more than a few hundred copies, and “Slow Horses,” the first book in his acidly funny series about a band of misfits in the British intelligence services, had performed so badly that its sequel, “Dead Lions,” could not find a British publisher.
“Ineptitude has always been a big part of my career,” Herron, who will turn 60 in January, said recently.
Not anymore. Thanks to a series of fortunate events, and to the irresistible allure of the failures and has-beens who populate his books, Herron has become a literary superstar, with total sales surpassing three million copies. On Nov. 29, the third season of the TV adaptation of his “Slow Horses” books, starring Gary Oldman as the slovenly Jackson Lamb, will begin airing on Apple TV+.
“Is Mick Herron the best spy novelist of his generation?” The New Yorker asked in a profile last year.
The answer may well be yes, but Herron is more attuned to the earlier part of his career — the part where nothing went well — than he is to the vertiginous turn in his fortunes. He has a quiet, self-effacing manner, and as he spoke on a wildly wet autumn afternoon, it was occasionally difficult to hear him over the sound of the rain bucketing down outside his living room.
“I empathize more with failures than I do with successes,” he said. “Looking back, I remain at a stage where I’ve been a failure for longer than I’ve been a success. So until it balances out, I’ll always feel that way.”
Herron has been compared to John le Carré for the intricacy of his plotting and the thoroughness of his world building, though the two men differ greatly in tone and in focus. He has also been compared to Charles Dickens and P.G. Wodehouse for his lacerating descriptions and delight in the absurd. (There’s also a touch of Armando Iannucci, the creator of “The Thick of It” and “Veep,” in Herron’s jaundiced depiction of political bungling and infighting.)
But the author remains mostly insulated from the praise, and indeed from much of the outside world. He has a 10-year-old Nokia phone that he uses for calling, texting and checking the time. (“It’s also a torch,” he noted, using the British word for flashlight.) During the pandemic, he moved in with his partner, Jo Howard, an executive-search consultant for the publishing industry, but he has no Wi-Fi in his old house, where he spends his days writing.
He gets the news from the radio and, on weekends, the newspapers. “I never really got my head around it,” he said of the internet.
Herron’s latest book, “The Secret Hours,” is a stand-alone novel on the periphery of the “Slow Horses” universe whose focus is a slow-walking inquiry into historical wrongdoing in MI5, Britain’s domestic spy service. The book is classic Herron, featuring mordant humor, bureaucratic power plays, underappreciated functionaries, bravura action sequences and at least one unexpected casualty.
It’s not that Herron doesn’t care about his characters; it’s that he cares more about his craft.
“I’m writing in a genre which involves, you know, danger,” he said. “If you always have characters in peril who always get out alive, then, after a while, creating any kind of edge is quite difficult. So any time I put a character in danger my regular readers know there’s a good possibility he won’t get out of it.”
Readers of the “Slow Horses” novels will also know that while Herron writes from multiple points of view, he rarely enters the head of Jackson Lamb, his outrageously offensive antihero. Drunken, disheveled and damaged by traumas from his time in the field, Lamb is in charge of Slough House, a sort of rubber room for burned-out and disgraced spies.
“If we knew what he thought, either we would know he meant what he said, which would make him intolerable,” Herron said, “or that he didn’t, which would make it meaningless.”
Herron was raised in Newcastle upon Tyne. Unusually for a product of the English state-school system in the northeast, he went to Oxford, where he studied English. After a hiatus writing poetry, working in the Oxford library system and going on the dole, he took a job as a copy editor at a firm in London that publishes reports about legal proceedings. He spent hours commuting each day.
“That’s when I decided that I had to write something,” he said. Detective fiction suited him because it “provided a kind of structure, a scaffolding,” he said. Though he acquired an agent, Julia Burton — she signed him up after reading an early manuscript that had found its way to the slush pile in her office — it was years before he found a publisher. He has since destroyed his unpublished efforts, he said.
In 2003, he got a contract for “Cemetery Road,” a literary detective novel featuring an unhappily married woman who hires a private detective to help her investigate a mysterious neighborhood explosion, and a murder plot, covered up by the authorities. The book got an advance of 2,000 British pounds and no reviews, Burton said. (It and three sequels are now being considered for a TV adaptation.)
“I accommodated myself quite quickly to the idea that I wasn’t going to make a living out of this,” said Herron. He didn’t exactly mind, in part because, after the London mass-transit bombings of 2005, he wanted to switch to spy fiction, and the anonymity suited him.
“I was even more introverted than I am now,” he said. “I thought, ‘I don’t have a readership, so nobody is paying attention and nobody is going to get annoyed or upset at anything I write.’ It probably helped me find the tone of voice I ended up using.”
That tone — amused, jaded — is a character in itself. While his work reflects his general disillusionment with Brexit-era Britain, it engages only obliquely with current events. (Alert readers will recognize sly references to Boris Johnson, the former prime minister, in “The Secret Hours.” Herron is not a fan.)
After “Dead Lions” failed to find a British publisher in 2013, Herron’s career was saved by two things. First, Juliet Grames, a new editor at Soho Press, his longtime American publisher, decided to publish the new book — and, in a cheeky move for an American firm, nominated it for Britain’s top crime-fiction prize, the CWA Gold Dagger Award. To the amazement of the guests at the ceremony, and of Herron, “Dead Lions” won.
“It was a bit surprising,” said Herron. “But it meant everything to me. It validated all the work I’d ever done, and it was one of the reasons that my whole career turned around.” Separately, an editor at John Murray in Britain chanced on one of Herron’s books at a train station and signed him up. Once again, he had a British publisher.
Even still, it wasn’t until 2017, when Herron got a rave review on NPR, that sales really began to take off. That same year, Waterstones, the British book chain, made “Slow Horses” a book of the month — seven years after it was first published. And Herron finally quit his copy-editing job.
“Slow Horses” has now sold more than 700,000 copies in the United States alone, said Grames, who is now Soho’s editorial director. Herron’s books — eight “Slow Horses” novels, four Oxford novels, several stand-alone novels and numerous short stories — have been translated into 24 languages.
How has success changed Herron, whose life and work are so entwined with his sense of failure? Obviously, he has more money and freedom, he said; and he’s made friends with other writers, a new experience for someone who worked in obscurity for so long.
He thought for a moment.
“I’m a lot more confident,” he said, “which is nice.”
Howard, who was walking past just then, chimed in.
“Certainly you’re more confident at events,” she said.
“They used to terrify me,” Herron said. “I’d be worrying for more than a week beforehand. Or an interview like this — I’d be fretting about it for ages.”
“Now you speak clearly and confidently but also with humility,” Howard said.
“It’s a shame,” Herron said, “that they don’t give prizes for humility.”