Thursday, March 25, 2010

The forgotten master of British spy fiction

Spy fiction can be divided, very roughly, into two camps: Field and Desk. James Bond is a field agent - we follow his adventures, not M's. John le Carré's novels, on the other hand, tend to focus on the people back at headquarters – George Smiley is a senior man at the Circus (he later becomes head of it, for a time). Broadly speaking, I think Field tends to win out on the sales front, whereas Desk gets more critical acclaim.

I enjoy both genres, but sometimes find myself wishing that the Field book I'm reading were as deft at characterization and prose style as it is at the suspense and atmosphere. Similarly, I often find myself reading a Desk book and desperately hoping that something will happen. It's all beautifully drawn, but is everyone going to be searching their filing cabinets for that manila folder forever?

In my own work, I’ve tried to have my cake and eat it: Paul Dark is a Desk man sent unwillingly back into the Field. In this I was partly influenced by the British spy novelist Joseph Hone, who combines the best of both camps in a way that leaves me breathless – and sick with envy. I interviewed Hone for my unpublished article on spy writers back in 2002, but decided not to include him in the finished piece, partly because it was already rather long, and partly because his work didn’t quite fit with the other writers I’d interviewed for it. But as I think he was one of the great spy novelists of the last century, I’m going to return to him now.

After speaking to Hone (his number was in the book and he picked up – sometimes you get lucky), he sent me a very charming and touching letter, and enclosed copies of many of his reviews. That probably sounds a little vain of him, but it’s not if you've read his novels. While it was reassuring to see that others had also highly valued his work, I found the reviews rather depressing reading. When I see a quote from a newspaper on the back of a novel, I'm conscious that it may have been taken wildly out of context. ‘Better than Deighton’ may, for example, have originally been part of the sentence ‘Better than Deighton at describing the intricacies of Nicaraguan bee-keeping customs Mr Fortescue undoubtedly is; as to the nature of espionage, he hasn't the foggiest.’ A jacket that trumpets ‘One for le Carré lovers… real suspense’ may have been culled from a review in the local paper that read: ‘One for le Carré lovers in search of a stop-gap only – despite occasional glimmers of real suspense, No Checkpoints for Charlie is dull as ditchwater, with a protagonist so irritating I kept wishing he would use his blasted cyanide capsule and put us all out of our misery.’ (My publishers would never do this, by the way.) But here were perceptive and laudatory reviews of Hone's work from Time, Newsweek, The Times Literary Supplement, The Washington Post, Kirkus and many more, comparing him favourably with Ambler, le Carré, Deighton and Greene. And yet, sadly, he is pretty much completely forgotten today, a footnote in British spy fiction. He deserves to be much better known.

Hone’s main protagonist – ‘a man with almost no heroic qualities’, as he describes himself – is Peter Marlow, an MI6 desk man turned field agent. He is repeatedly being taken out of his grubby office in the Mid-East Section in Holborn and dragged into the line of fire. The plots come thick and fast, and feature ingenious twists, action, mayhem, chases, Esperanto smiles and high-octane affairs – all the great spy stuff you'd want. But it's all wrapped up in prose so elegant, and characterization so subtle and pervasive, that you put the books down feeling you've just read a great work of literature.

Marlow himself is a wonderful character, and I think deserves to be as well known as Smiley. He’s the constant outsider, peering in at others' lives, meddling where he shouldn't, and usually being set up by everyone around him. He's a kind and intelligent man, and terribly misused, but he’s also a cynic – he sees betrayal as inevitable, and tries to prepare for it.

We first meet him in The Private Sector (1971), as an English teacher in Cairo who is gradually drawn into a spy ring. It’s one of those ‘innocents in too deep’ stories, but the evocation of both Egypt and the shifting loyalties of the protagonists is dazzling. Hone alternates between third and first persons, which he makes look like the easiest thing in the world. Set in the run-up to the Six Day War, it is superficially about Soviet moles, but the subtext is about how we can never know anyone else. That’s a poor description of it, though, so here’s LJ Davis writing about it in The Washington Post in July 1972 instead:
‘There are moments in this book – indeed, whole chapters – where one is haunted by the eerie feeling that Joseph Hone is really Graham Greene, with faint quarterings of Lawrence Durrell and Thomas Pynchon. His tone is nearly perfect – quiet, morbidly ironic, beautifully controlled and sustained, moodily introspective, occasionally humorous and more often bitter, with a persistent undertone of unspeakable sadness and irrecoverable loss.’
The May 8 1972 issue of Newsweek featured a full-page review of the book, calling it the best spy novel since Deighton’s Funeral In Berlin:
‘Joseph Hone knows what counts in this kind of fiction: ambiguity, romantic weariness, morality suspended, a precise sense of place, and a hall-of-mirrors effect in which double and triple agents are each caught in a plot more twisted than he can comprehend yet each imagines a plot more twisted yet. The fun is in watching everyone second-guess everyone else.’
The review concluded:
‘Hone answers to all the criteria of good spy fiction; his story is not only good but reinforced by his dalliance. He remembers, as some ambitious but less skilful writers forget, that a good spy story subordinates everything – characters, atmosphere and all – to the necessities of plot. A good spy novel is quite different from a good novel about spies – Conrad's Secret Agent, for instance, or le Carré's Looking Glass War – in which plot is sacrificed for the sake of character and atmosphere.’
In the second novel in the series, The Sixth Directorate (1975), Marlow has become just a little wiser. MI5 has caught a chap called George Graham red-handed as a Soviet sleeper, and locked him away. But they need to know more. Marlow looks enough like Graham that he is sent on a mission to impersonate him. The book is partly set in New York. Here’s Marlow describing his arrival there:
‘The city had climbed up in front of us long before, when we'd passed under the Verrazzano bridge eight miles out; the towers, points, all the steps and cliffs of Manhattan growing up on the horizon, poking gradually into the sun, like an ultimate geography lesson – some final, arrogant proof in steel and concrete that the world was round.

From a distance the city was a very expensive educational game, a toy not like other toys. And one had seen those towers so often in so many images – in polychrome and black and white, moving or with music – that all of us standing on the forward deck that morning had the expression of picture dealers scrutinising a proffered masterpiece, leaving a polite interval before crying 'Fake!'

These preconceptions were a pity since, from a distance, in the sharp light over a gently slapping metal-blue sea, the place looked better than any of its pictures, like the one advertisement layout that had escaped all the exaggerated attentions of the years, come free of Madison Avenue, the press, all the published myths and horrors of the city.

Sharp winds had rubbed the skyline clean, light glittered on the edges of the buildings and all I saw was a place where I was unknown, where unknown people bore ceaselessly up and down those cavernous alleys, between bars and restaurants and offices, all busy with an intent that had nothing to do with me.

The city stood up like a rich menu I could afford at last after a long denial.’
Marlow has come to Manhattan because Graham had a mistress there years ago, and he has studied her letters to learn all about her. But when the MI6 liaison in the city introduces Marlow to his wife, we realize that she was Graham’s lover. Ouch. Before long, Marlow finds himself entangled with her, as well as fending off the advances of a beautiful African princess who works for the United Nations. Yes, only in spy novels, but Hone somehow manages to make the whole thing seem real:
‘'Having coffee with a spy.' She said it in a deep, funny voice. 'Do you carry a revolver?'

'No, as a matter of fact. No guns, no golden Dunhills, no dark glasses.'

'No vodka martinis either – very dry, stirred and not shaken. Or is it the other way round?'

I felt the skin on my face move awkwardly, creases rising inexplicably over my cheeks. Then I realised I was smiling.

'Yes, I drink. Sometimes. Bottles of light ale, though. I'm a spy from one of those seedier thrillers, I'm afraid.'

'Let's have a drink then.'


'God, no. Upstairs.'

I looked at her blankly.

'Women are out too, are they? Not even "sometimes"? What a very dull book you are.’

'I disappoint you.'

'Not yet.'

She stood up and tightened her belt a notch. She was already pretty thin.’
It’s not that seedy a thriller, of course. Here’s Anatole Broyard’s verdict on it from The New York Times of March 2, 1984:
‘Joseph Hone's Sixth Directorate, which was published in 1975, is one of the best suspense novels of the last ten years. It has elegance, wit, sympathy, irony, surprise, action, a rueful love affair and a melancholy Decline of the West mood. Only the crimes in its pages separate the book from what is known as serious novels.’
The book also came with a cover quote from the American spy novelist Charles McCarry, who Hone is similar to in some ways. McCarry was forgotten for years, before being rediscovered in the last decade by a new generation of readers. Hone told me that Tony Richardson, the director of Look Back In Anger and The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, had intended to film The Sixth Directorate, taking an option on it and commissioning a script, but it didn’t go ahead as result of Joseph Andrews performing poorly at the box office. That’s a real shame, as it could have made a terrific film, and introduced Hone to a wider audience.

After The Sixth Directorate, Hone wrote a standalone spy thriller, The Paris Trap (1977), although its narrator, Harry Tyson, is in much the same vein as Marlow. The plot sounds preposterous when précised, and doesn’t do it justice, but I’ll give it a go. A film, Hero, is being shot in Paris, starring Julie Christie, Jean-Paul Belmondo and (the fictional) Jim Hackett. The plot of the film: a group of Palestinian terrorists have taken Christie’s husband, a minister in the French government, hostage. Belmondo plays a cop reluctantly working alongside British agent Summers, who is played by Hackett.

The screenplay for Hero is based on the long-running TV series of the same name, which in turn was based on a novel by John Major (really). Major was a pseudonym of Harry Tyson, who now works for British Intelligence (in the same section as Marlow, with the same boss). Former spy writer Tyson and film star Hackett are old friends, but now Tyson is having an affair with Hackett’s estranged wife – and Hackett secretly seeing Tyson’s.

In the meantime, a Palestinian terrorist cell, known only as The Group, takes Tyson, his daughter, and Hackett’s wife hostage. Their demands? Unusual, to say the least. They want a rewrite of the Hero script by Tyson, restoring the original grittiness of Summers’ character (he was a kind of Harry Palmer, but has become more like Bond), and a more sympathetic depiction of the Palestinian cause. The leader of The Group’s operation turns out to be a middle-class British radical: think a younger Vanessa Redgrave to the power of ten.

If you can’t imagine how on earth any of this could make a believable (or coherent) thriller, here’s the opening paragraph, which is typical of the tone throughout:
‘Nothing should ever surprise us. The warnings were all there in the past, ignored or disbelieved, and so all the more devastating when they at last take effect – as a marriage will suddenly explode for the lack of something years before, some mild ghost not laid in bed then, which rises up one fine day and takes a brutal shape from the years of waiting.’
Hone’s next novel, The Flowers of the Forest (1980), brought Marlow back. The book was published in the US as The Oxford Gambit, a move that did not impress the critic of The New York Times Book Review:
‘The title was changed here, I suppose, to identify it more clearly as a complicated thriller and tap the wide market for such books. Pity. It is all of that but a bit more. It is a deft story laced with a mordant wit and deserves a wide readership.’
Like the previous two Marlow novels, the plot again revolves around Soviet penetration agents. The man in question this time is Lindsay Phillips, a senior MI6 officer who suddenly disappears while tending his bees. Has he been kidnapped, murdered – or was he perhaps, as some are now starting to fear, a mole all along? Our man Marlow is sent in to investigate, and begins prying around the family: how much did Phillips’ wife and daughter know of his secret life? The basic set-up is familiar from several spy novels of the era, and would be put to great and best-selling effect by le Carré in A Perfect Spy six years later, but Hone handles it very differently. The narrative is once more a mix of first and third person, and features murders at funerals, chases across Europe, faked deaths and hidden affairs galore. Isabel Quigly wrote of it in the Financial Times:
‘This is the best thriller I’ve found in years, perhaps the best I remember – too serious and rich for the world thriller and what it implies, though sticking closely to the thriller genre – a novel about the mysteriousness of human beings rather than the mysteries of intelligence and diplomacy. The weaving of the story is so close, so tight, that no image, no hint, is ever wasted: everything links up with something else pages or chapters ahead… It all works without pretentiousness, going far beyond the limitations of its genre.’
That ellipsis isn’t to cut parts that weren’t as flattering, by the way, but rather a couple of hundred more words raving about the novel’s merits. Ms Quigly, I salute your good taste.

The Valley Of The Fox (1982) was the final novel in the series. Marlow has retired to the Cotswolds, where he is slowly writing his memoirs. Then a man breaks in and shoots his wife, and he goes on the run. This is a classic chase thriller, in the tradition of Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male. Some passages pay explicit homage to that book, with Marlow surviving on his wits in the countryside. Here's how it opens:
'He'd trapped me. But had he intended to? Had he meant to drive me up against the old pumping shed by the far end of the lake? Or had I carelessly allowed him to do this, moving after him into this impasse where there was no soundless exit, either across the stream ahead or up the steep open slopes behind the ruined building. Either way, I couldn't move now. And since the laurel bush only partly hid me I knew that if he moved past the corner of the shed he must see me and I would have to kill him...'
So there you have it. Five novels, all superb, all pretty much forgotten. All are also long out of print, but are easily found online, and well worth seeking out. Faber Finds also has the four Marlow novels as print-on-demand titles. They are not only very readable and exciting, but also psychologically astute and beautifully written. The passages I’ve quoted from them give only an inkling of their impact: it’s the melding of the prose style with the twists and turns of the plots that make Hone so special, and it has to be experienced over the course of a novel to appreciate.


  1. I thought I was the only one who loved and remembered Joseph Hone. Hone and Gerald Seymour, plus commando comics was my escape from being forced to read Emile Zola, Graham Greene (who I became to love), and Steinbeck.

    Spy fiction is about escapism, not the boring nonsense of desk bound agents being involved in exciting paper trails. Is Smiley really a spy or just a civil servant working in Intelligence?

  2. Hi Markus, thanks for the comment. Glad to make the acquaintance of another Joseph Hone fan! I've only read a couple of Gerald Seymour's novels, which I enjoyed, and have never read a commando comic. But Hone hits the spot for me anyway, and yes, it's all about escapism.

  3. I first found a Joseph Hone paperback (Flowers of the Forest) sometime in the late 1990s in a second-hand bookstall in Dhaka, Bangladesh. It was a real dog-eared copy but you only needed to read the first half-dozen pages to get the feeling that you were also in the presence of great spy fiction. It was only around 15 years later that I finally found the first Marlow book - sadly the entire London Library system has only single copies of each of his novels, and I am currently reading the original first edition of Private Sector. The cover design of that edition by the way is just exquisite