Spynovelfan’s essay in advocacy of spy-genre works by Joseph Hone

Source: Commander Bond website [online; accessed 24.10.2009]. Authored by “spynovelfan” (18 March 2005)

We first meet Marlow in The Private Sector (1975), when he is a teacher in Egypt who gradually gets involved in a spy ring. Marlow starts believing in some kind of rules; most - but not all - are broken. This is one of those ‘innocents in too deep’ stories, like The Man Who Knew Too Much, or The 39 Steps. Its most obvious model, however, is Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandra Quartet: both the setting and the protagonists are similar. Hone alternates between third and first persons, which he makes look like the easiest thing in the world. This novel is about the run-up to the Six Day War, about Soviet moles, about how one can never know anyone else. It’s quite extraordinary.

In the next novel, The Sixth Directorate (1977), Marlow is a little wiser. This is a variation of the Impersonation thriller, like The Prisoner of Zenda. The plot is as melodramatic as one could hope for: Marlow must travel to New York and pose as George Graham, who MI6 has captured in London and proved to be a KGB agent. When Marlow gets to New York, he meets the head of MI6 station and his lovely wife. The wife is surprised that he claims he's George Graham - because she used to be Graham's lover.

The Valley of the Fox (1982), features a retired Marlow living in the Cotswolds and writing his memoirs. Then a man breaks in and shoots his wife, and Marlow goes on the run. This is a Chase novel, like The Bourne Identity or Rogue Male. It’s an explicit homage to the latter: Marlow survives in the countryside. It’s also about colonialism, creativity, nature versus nurture, and the power of story-telling. 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.

The Oxford Gambit aka The Flowers of the Forest, is the last in the series. It’s a Mole story, like A Perfect Spy (which it precedes, but is remarkably similar to) and countless other British spy novels of the 70s and 80s. A senior member of MI6 has disappeared, and Marlow has to find out if he was a double agent or not.

Hone also wrote The Paris Trap (1977). This doesn’t feature Marlow, but the narrator, Harry Tyson, is him in all but name. He even works for the same boss. This is a Terrorist Kidnap novel, like Seven Days to a Killing. It has a plot so absurd that I don’t think even Robert Ludlum would have touched it. A film, Hero, is being shot in Paris, starring Julie Christie, Jean-Paul Belmondo and American superstar Jim Hackett. The plot of the film is this: a group of Palestinian terrorists have taken Christie’s husband, a minister in the French government, hostage. Belmondo plays a cop reluctantly working with British agent Summers, played by Hackett.

The screenplay is based on the long-running TV series of the same name, which in turn was based on a novel by John Major (yes). Major was a pseudonym of Harry Tyson, who now works for British Intelligence. Tyson and Hackett are old friends, but now Tyson is secretly seeing Hackett’s estranged wife, and Hackett secretly seeing Tyson’s.

Still there? A Palestinian terrorist cell, known as The Group, takes Tyson, his daughter, and Hackett’s wife hostage. Their demands? A rewrite of the film 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.

If you can’t imagine how on earth that could make a believable thriller, here’s the opening paragraph, which is typical of the tone throughout, and of Hone's writing in general:

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.

The blending of Hone’s exquisite prose and peripatetic plots makes for some of the most satisfying and haunting thrillers I’ve read. He’s long out of print, but is easily found at online bookstores like Abebooks and Bookfinder. If you’re looking for some highly intelligent but exciting thrillers, I suggest you seek him out.


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