Obituary: Joseph Hone
Spy novelist, broadcaster and traveller escaped a difficult childhood through the creation of a rich fictional life
Published 25/09/2016 | 02:30
Joseph Hone, the Dublin-born writer, who has died aged 79, had some claim to being the most unjustly neglected spy novelist of his generation; he was also an inveterate traveller whose broadcasts from outlandish places delighted radio listeners for a quarter of a century.
Hone abandoned the espionage genre too soon to build up the following he deserved, but to his admirers his five spy novels ranked among the best of the cloak-and-dagger entertainments inspired by the success in the 1960s of John le Carré and Len Deighton. William Boyd, who claimed Hone's spy novels as an influence on his own, declared them to be "first-class works of fiction - as dark and well- researched as le Carré".
Hone's debut novel, The Private Sector (1971), introduced the first eruption of drama into the life of Peter Marlow, an MI6 desk man of "almost no heroic qualities" who leads a quiet existence in a shabby office with "haggard walnut furniture" in Holborn.
He is sent to Egypt, against the backdrop of the Six Day War, and assigned to track down - by which, he fears, his superiors mean "kill" - a suspected double agent who is romantically involved with his ex-wife.
The novel was inspired by Hone's own experiences of the downbeat British community in Cairo, coming to terms with the end of Empire, when he worked there as an English teacher in 1958-9. He evoked his setting with the precise, poetic prose that characterised all his work.
"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," enthused the novelist L J Davis in the Washington Post.
"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 ways in which the conduct of everyday relationships can mirror the feints and duplicities of espionage work (or vice versa) were further explored in two more Marlow novels, The Sixth Directorate (1975) and The Flowers of the Forest (aka The Oxford Gambit, 1980). Meanwhile, The Paris Trap (1977) featured a spy novelist who is kidnapped by Palestinian terrorists demanding a sympathetic portrayal of their cause in the film of one of his books, and was lighter in tone but no less violent.
Hone's last excursion in the genre, The Valley of the Fox (1982), sees the retired Marlow on the run after surviving an attack in which his wife is killed, and disillusioned enough to suspect that the Service is trying to prevent him from publishing his memoirs. As he flees across the country, Hone evokes the landscape and history of England with obvious love, while lamenting that in the present, "the dull and the vulgar prospered. The small men had come to rule".
Hone suggested in old age that he had become a novelist because of "a need to create a fictional life, to get right away from what pained me in real life".
The source of that pain was an extraordinary childhood, in which he saw himself as "the first parcel in the Pass the Parcel game that my parents forced on their children".
Joseph Hone was born in Dublin on February 25, 1937 into one of Ireland's most notable artistic and literary families. His father Nat was a scapegrace who squandered a legacy and was kept by his wife Biddy, a filing clerk. At the age of two Joe, their oldest child, was abandoned to the care of his grandfather, also called Joseph Hone, a man of letters and an intimate of Yeats, Synge and Beckett, whose magnum opus was a philosophical dictionary that had reached the letter B by his death.
Young Joe was fostered by the political essayist Hubert Butler and his wife Peggy. His six younger siblings (three of whom he had no knowledge of the existence of until his 40s) were successively forced by his parents on to his grandparents, and likewise farmed out. His grandfather offered two twin brothers to P L Travers, the creator of Mary Poppins; she agreed to take on only one, after consulting her astrologer as to which brother was the more propitious.
Hone attributed his artistic leanings to the influence of the Butlers and Peggy Butler's brother, the director Tyrone Guthrie, at whose grand house, Annaghmakerrig in Co Monaghan, he lived for much of his early childhood. But he was plagued by a sense of abandonment, which was compounded when the Butlers sent him to Sandford Park, the prep school in Dublin run by the sadistic Hal Deacon, and he became a habitual liar and petty thief. He went on to St Columba's College, where, though no academic, he proved an exceptional all-round sportsman.
After leaving school he drifted into bookselling and teaching, but his passion was film and he secured a lowly assistant directorship on John Ford's The Rising of the Moon (1957) after shinning up a wall into the production office. Dreams of stardom were shattered when, offered a bit part, he repeatedly fluffed his cues owing to nerves.
"You know something, Hone?" growled Ford. "You're more f---ing trouble than John Wayne."
He went on to work as a theatre manager for Joan Littlewood at Stratford East, then as a talks producer for BBC radio and a broadcasting officer at the UN headquarters in New York.
His mellifluous voice was first heard on the wireless when he broadcast an account of a return visit to Egypt on the Home Service in 1966; over the next few decades he riveted listeners with tales of his extensive wanderings through Russia, Africa, the Caribbean and elsewhere, ending with a series on Ireland on Radio 4 in 1992. Late in life he took up a university post in creative writing in New Jersey.
He also published four travel books, a number of historical novels, and a memoir of his childhood, Wicked Little Joe (2009), which won much critical acclaim but caused him a good deal of pain in the writing.
A generous and clubbable man, Joe Hone was delighted by a revival of interest in his spy novels in recent years, which led to a number of reissues published by Faber, and contemplated resurrecting Marlow for a novel set in Lapland.
He married, in 1964, Jacky Yeend, with whom he settled in the English Cotswolds; she survives him with their son and daughter. Joseph Hone died on August 15.