The Sixth Directorate, by Joseph Hone
The second of Joseph Hone’s Peter Marlow sequence is, like the first, The Private Sector, a worthy and compelling piece of seventies spy action – like John Le Carre, Hone is more interested in the psychological effects of the cloak and dagger game on its participants, and recognises that the banal outweighs the dramatic by some considerable margin. That doesn’t stop him from starting the book with an fanciful idea: the existence of a secret liberal faction within the KGB, the unofficial Sixth Directorate of the title, existing in secret alongside the five divisions known to their political masters.
As Head of the KGB Yuri Andropov closes in on the mysterious faction, he drives its leader to go on the run and sets in motion a sequence of events that causes Peter Marlow to once more be of value to the British Secret Intelligence Service. At the end of The Private Sector, Marlow was framed as a KBG mole. Now, four years later, he is extricated from Durham prison and taken to London to be briefed: because he has a similar background and a passing resemblance to George Graham, a KBG sleeper now in British hands, he is going to be sent to the United Nations in New York to impersonate Graham and unmask a Soviet spy ring.
Needless to say, what sounds simple in theory rapidly becomes fiendishly complex in practice – not least when it turns out that the wife of his British control, Helen, is the woman with who George Graham conducted an affair years earlier in Africa. She could blow his cover straight away, but she doesn’t, perpetuating a bizarre triangle of deceit where all three characters know different secrets about the others, but not necessarily the same ones. The risks escalate when the KBG intervenes: by coercing Marlow and Helen, they hope to flush out the leader of the Sixth Directorate and obtain a lits of the names of all of its operatives. It’s a tense and exciting climax as the Russians and the British play a high-stakes game.
Peter Marlow is a likeable, intelligent character who is used and manipulated by all sides in the dirty war. With his references in the text to Le Carre and Len Deighton, Joseph Hone is a participant in the best tradition of the British spy novel, and this is a pretty good book, written in wondeful, atmospheric prose – it may drag in a couple of places where Marlow threatens to be overwhelmed by the complex relationship that he has with Helen, and by his own split nature as George Graham, but it finishes on a high, and leaves Marlow at liberty to once again be dragged in to the machinations of the spymasters. Recommended.