Joseph Hone’s Peter Marlow novels…
The Sixth Directorate is the second volume in the Peter Marlow spy novels written by the late Joseph Horne. Starting where he left off in The Private Sector, Horne continues very much in the same vein in this superior Cold War novel.
Part written in the first person, Horne takes us on a journey beginning in Andropov’s Moscow before introducing us once again to Marlow in the confines of HMP Durham. This sense of journey weaves effortlessly throughout the book taking in the skyscrapers of New York to the deserts of East Africa without the irritating geography lesson and irrelevant tourist facts. Horne adds places as a background to plot lines built up over several years or decades with well researched nuances of detail which some may find long-winded. But acts of espionage seldom begin and end over the course of a weekend, in the true spirit of the game, Horne is able to magnify that sense of treachery at the end of his novels because of the longevity of the plot in a way Len Deighton managed so brilliantly in the Bernie Samson series.
As in The Private Sector, the reader can never be too sure what genre they are truly ‘in’. For all intents and purposes, the novel is at its heart, a tale of espionage and intrigue but Horne takes the world of espionage, dissects it and evaluates it from a personal perspective before reassembling it into a story which, like Greene before him, shows us the cold, harsh reality of life as a spy.
Our ‘hero’ is hardly a spy. Marlow stumbles and falls into the intelligence world like so many others, he bears the scars of the deceptions of those whom he trusted and in this book we see his life put on the line by lords and masters playing a game of bluff and counter bluff. But Marlow is not the only case of damaged goods, the story centres around those most cruelly affected, their lives shattered by years of false identities, misplaced ideals and unscrupulous handlers. It is at once a spy novel, a romance, a suspense and a non-partisan view of Cold War politik and persuasions.
Faber reissued all of Hone’s novels shortly before his death. They are bound within a plain white cover, no Bond-esque artwork, no “If you love Le Carré…” bribes, the words within are left to speak for themselves. I feel fortunate to have discovered Horne’s work even if it is some years later. He reminds me of Francis Bennett, another vastly underrated spy novelist who wrote far too few books. The Marlow series is still in print and well worth collecting.
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Categories: The Reading Room