Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Book Review: The Sixth Directorate (1975) by Joseph Hone

Yes, it's a horrible cover.
There's never really been a writer of spy fiction like Joseph Hone. He only wrote four spy novels featuring reluctant agent Peter Marlow, and one of those, The Valley of the Fox is more of an eccentric take on a Geoffrey Household-type adventure yarn than it is a spy story. Having read all four now, it's clear that Hone was using the genre as a vehicle for lyrical, trenchant, forensic examinations of male-female relationships. Or to view it another way, he saw spying, and its concomitant betrayals and life-long political commitments, as perfectly analogous to the tides and tempests of romantic relationships.

All four of Hone's spy novels have intense personal relationships at their core. The first in the series, The Private Sector, begins as a study of Marlow's relationship with the woman who becomes his wife in post-colonial Egypt. That novel only kicks into spy gear at about the one-third mark. This novel, the second in the series, begins in full spy mode and then becomes a story of entangled relationships for most of its length. The plot has Marlow assuming the identity of a KGB sleeper agent who has been resident in London for many years. His assignment is to go to New York and take a job at the U.N. where, hopefully, he'll flush out an extensive network of KGB agents. That two sentence synopsis represents about 7.6% of the actual plot of the novel, which is daunting in its romantic and political complexities.

Soon after arriving in New York, Marlow finds that the man he's impersonating is part of a long-standing romantic triangle, and Marlow finds himself taking the man's place in that subterfuge as well. What's even stranger is that not only do all involved know about the various secret personal relationships, the concerned parties also know about who's spying for whom. This may be one of the few novels about spying in which none of the main characters have any secrets worth hiding. They do, however, go through the formalities of pretending they are acting in secret, just as failed relationships will continue to go through the usual domestic routines as though nothing had changed.

The fact that Hone's novels often drift more towards Henry James than Ian Fleming would be a problem if he wasn't such a fine writer, and The Sixth Directorate features some of his best writing. Here's Marlow describing the smile of someone he doesn't much like:

When he smiled, it was no more than a short break in the gray weather over the stumps and mud of no man's land.

And here's the introduction to one of the major characters:

But it wasn't a wooden face by any means. Only its present outlines were fixed. For the moment it had simply withdrawn the currency of  expression; it was resting, as if inwardly reflecting on its assets. leaving only a rough estimate of its worth on view, so that passers-by might be warned of the stakes involved before making an investment. 

Hone also writes prose that can easily double as blank verse. Here's a description of an agent confronting the painful duality of his life:

Now, in the silence, the other man, whose only business was guile, alert and smelling the wind, reared in him, while the happy man cursed the hour.

One of the hallmarks of a great writer is that he or she will toss something into the mix just for the sheer fun of showing off their artistry and technique. This is a description of the interior of the U.N. building that extends a passenger ship metaphor to include a stowaway:

...the whole area was remarkably like the first-class passenger concourse of a big tin liner, moored disconsolately and permanently beyond territorial waters, going nowhere.
     Only the shoeshine man seemed real--a middle-aged, balding New Yorker, in a short-sleeved tartan shirt, bent permanently forward on a little wooden chair over his work, head bobbing furiously, his hands and forearms a dusty brown with the years of his trade. He was like a stowaway on this listless ship full of impeccable people, someone from a ghetto that had shinned up the anchor on our last night in port and had now been set to work his passage by the captain.

Hone's novels are deficient in the slam and bang of a lot of spy fiction, but no one writes as well as him in this genre, and it would be a mistake to ghettoize his talent in the espionage section of the book store; he's simply a superb writer. The Sixth Directorate is only marred by a certain slackness in the later stages of the novel when the personal relationships begin to get a bit too fraught and all-consuming. On the plus side, the finale is wickedly tense and well-plotted.

My reviews of Hone's other Peter Marlow novels:

The Private Sector
The Oxford Gambit
The Valley of the Fox

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