Sunday, May 11, 2014

World War I Espionage from David Downing: JACK OF SPIES, Compelling New Series

David Downing's well-established espionage series set in Berlin during the Second World War wrapped up after six books, reaching the end of the war and a more settled situation for John Russell, reluctant spy finally able to settle with his family in a safe place. The series end didn't surprise readers, but it certainly brought a sense of loss.

Fortunately, Downing's opened a new series, this time opening in 1913, before the domino-game of catastrophes that would engage so many nations that it would become the first "world" war -- the Great War, the war to end all wars (ah, if only). In a sweep of geography and exhilaration that an elegant man of the time could encompass, Downing's quick-paced adventure for protagonist Jack McColl begins in a German-occupied section of China (did you know? I didn't!) and roars across the Pacific to San Francisco, then to Chicago, New York and New Jersey (the mills of Paterson!), and at last across another ocean to Ireland, that hotbed of rebellion and skilled revolutionaries.

Those who already know Downing's craft realize his deft hand with romantic passion and delicately portrayed merging of lust and love -- and like the "Station" series (his Berlin one), JACK OF SPIES includes a serious affair of the heart: Jack McColl's quick infatuation with an Irish-descent adventuress, Caitlin Hanley, turns out to be far deeper than a traveler's passion. But Caitlin has her own motives and powerful allies, and her motives don't align with John's; how long can the relationship survive their opposite loyalties and missions?

What I especially appreciate about Downing's writing is his willingness to admit that spies have feelings, often uncomfortable and distressing and even disabling, brought about both by the situations of hidden lives and danger, and their own adaptive rootlessness. Here's a bit from JACK OF SPIES as Jack McColl deals with the way deaths keep piling up around him, not just in war-poised China but even among the hills of San Francisco:
As he watched the hills of San Francisco draw ever closer from the bow of the ferry, McColl tried to shake off the numbness that seemed in danger of immobilizing him. Jatish was dead, and that was that -- he had no time to mourn a man he'd known for only an hour. ...

He'd been shown how ruthless the enemy was and he would have to be more vigilant. Disembarking, he scanned the waiting travelers with more concern than usual, double-checking several faces that instinct told him were innocent. In this job, he realized, paranoia could become second nature.
Although Downing is sometimes compared with that master of British spy fiction, John Le Carré, the literary link should be with Alan Furst, who also demonstrates the compelling process by which an ordinary person in an uneasy time can become a collaborator in the secret world of political maneuvers that demand nations and armies to follow. His mood isn't as pervasively dark as Furst's, yet the costs and deaths add up steadily, and by the end of JACK OF SPIES, a reader may be attentively waiting for more than the next book -- one waits for the inevitable conflict, whose roots are clearly exposed as McColl continues to accept his risky assignments.

Brought to us by Soho Crime ... wonder how many books the Great War will spin into, as Jack McColl is thrust into examining the loyalties and conflicts of the people and nations around him?


Beth Kanell said...

If you are reading other World War I related mysteries -- this series will serve as a good "prequel" to Charles Todd or Jacqueline Winspeare books, and especially to the Pat Barker "Regeneration" series. But it's also good perspective for the WW II books like James Benn's series.

Annette said...

Great review, thank you. I'm reviewing the book today.
I'm so glad you wrote a review which is explanatory and expressive. I'd read a few of the negative reviews at Amazon and I really wonder if those people read the book or just wanted to leave a comment.
I loved Jack of Spies and can't wait for the next one.
Annette at

Beth Kanell said...

I agree, Annette! And I enjoyed your review.