LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
The Sixth Directorate by Joseph Honepublished 1975
‘Yes, take him riding, Helen.’
Guy Jackson got up and went to the dining-room window, sipping his coffee. Hair too neatly brushed, in a polka-dot Sulka dressing-gown, framed in the grand casements, he had the air of someone testing for the part Cary Grant got in the original High Society. There was something insincere in his suggestion. He looked out over the terraces of sloping lawn, past the meadow to the trees and mountains rising beyond, with too eager an expression, as if contemplating a bed and not a landscape. ‘We can swim later. Or take a picnic lunch to Flatrock.’
The twins were in the kitchen, being fed by the housekeeper. Harold Perkins had not appeared for breakfast – no reasons offered, and none needed.
‘But I don’t ride. I’ve never ridden,’ I said, lying.
commentary: This is my book of 1975 for Rich Westwood’s Crime of the Century meme over at Past Offences.
Joseph Hone died in August, aged 79, and his obituaries described him as ‘the best spy author you have never heard of’. And on the strength of this one that’s about right. It’s an extraordinary book, more like a literary novel than a spy thriller in the writing, but with an excellent espionage plot. It’s not as funny as Len Deighton, not as silly as James Bond, not as sentimental as John Le Carre (I know that’s not a popular view, but I like JLC very much while finding him too soft-centred). This book is full of lost people searching for something – an ideal, or love – and is absolutely ferocious. It doesn’t resemble anything else I’ve ever read. One reviewer on amazon likened his writing to Ford Madox Ford, and I absolutely see what he means – and that’s a big compliment, FMF is one of my favourite writers of all time. The only other author he remotely resembles is Nicholas Mosley, whose Impossible Object is one of my best novels of all time.
The book is the 2nd in a series, and actually tells you quite a lot about the first one, The Private Sector (1971) – that doesn’t bother me, and I will certainly read it, but those who like their books in order should probably start there. Series hero Peter Marlow is sent to New York to impersonate a member of the Secret Services: the man he is pretending to be was a double agent, and he is to follow up his contacts, try to find out more about the KGB sleepers in the United States. Before he goes he realizes that his alter ego has been having a long-term affair with the wife of a contact…
So far so normal for a spy thriller, and Hone makes the most of the complications, the betrayals, the double agents, the suspects and the sleepers. He takes on board the mystery of how someone can be living a double life, what it would mean and how it would work. It is quite hard to keep track of some of the twists and turns in the book: who is working for who and who is pretending, and who knew what when.
The book takes a long time to get going in my view, with an extended opening section in the USSR, featuring some real people (Andropov and Philby): I was quite impatient by the time we got to the end of that, and I didn’t understand the business with the trains. But once the story became Marlow’s, I was hooked. The early scene where he goes to an empty flat and hears voices having a worrying conversation was an absolute masterpiece of cleverness, wit and tension – from that moment I was a lost cause.
The book was so clever and melancholy and thoughtful, and tremendously well-written. Then there would be some sudden action scene and terrible gruesome moments. The woman in the case, Helen, is terrifically well done, much more so than the women characters in Hone’s contemporaries’ books. There is a scene of marital distress taking place in a room full of child-size play houses that was both hilarious and poignant and will live on in my mind:
I tried to get out of my [toy] house to separate them but it wasn’t easy with the small door opening inwards, my pocket catching on it, and by the time I was out on the [model] street they were at it hammer and tongs.I can’t say too much about the plot for fear of spoilers, but I kept making notes of wonderful sentences:
Country Life had been one of the most popular magazines amongst the old lags in Durham [Jail].
…[there was his horror at] what he had always seen as the epitome of dissolute bohemianism: an interest in graphics and oysters.
These are one character’s thoughts on politics:
He watched them disappear from the space in the trees, saw their heads bobbing up and down among the leaves further along the lane. They were like a cigarette commercial, he thought: happy but dangerous.
I shouldn’t have taken it all so seriously. It could have been something you sang about when you were young, talked about in college, argued about in bars and cafés, a dream you shouted from the rooftops while the pigs were letting off gas grenades at you: kidnapping the Dean, burning the draft cards and blowing up the computer building. I could have done it that way – the way you grow out of it, like Paris in the spring, because you weren’t ever really going to see it come about, were you?I think that is wonderful writing.
I do recommend the book, and I will most certainly be reading more by him.
H/T to my friend Col (of the Criminal Library), who found this book in one of his tubs recently. It was a cracking week’s cataloguing, as it goes, because he also mentioned Jed Mercurio’s American Adulterer the same week – I bought both books and loved both of them.