Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Espionage and Opposition, World War I: ONE MAN'S FLAG, David Downing

David Downing's six-book World War II espionage series, with each book named for a railroad station in Berlin, established him as a master storyteller who could play the passions of romance and loyalty like stage lights across the scenes of menace, risk, and carnage. It almost hurt physically to come to the end of the series with Masaryk Station and watch the characters learn what the war-torn, peace-torn city would become to them. And with the end of the war, and the end of the high-stakes spying that nearly destroyed them, John Russell and his lover Effi Koenen, an actress who has performed for the German High Command as John forcibly served British, American, Russian, and German needs, were free to walk away. To become, in a sense, ordinary, wounded people, able to make choices in large ways instead of just in small ones. To live in peacetime.

So of course, the series ended. To my delight, in 2014 Soho Press brought out the first book of Downing's next series, Jack of Spies. Oh, marvelous -- Downing simply moved back into the preceding war! In the second book of this series, released this week, ONE MAN'S FLAG, Downing takes readers on a much stranger journey than in his Berlin series. Despite the popular pre-, post-, and in-the-midst-of-war mysteries that are circulating from other authors around the World War I timeline (Charles Todd; Jacqueline Winspeare; Pat Barker), this massive monster of a war is less well known to Americans -- we had so small a role in it -- and Downing draws out details that surprise and challenge. In Jack of Spies, for instance, the German occupation of part of China launched the action (and I'd never been aware of it until I read the book). In ONE MAN'S FLAG, we discover also the perilous state of the British Empire, first in India, where Jack McColl is investigating gun-running efforts to feed a predictable rebellion against the long-time foreign rulers -- and then in Ireland.

And it's Ireland that has pulled steadily on McColl and his former lover, Caitlyn Hanley. If you haven't read Jack of Spies, sorry, this will "spoil" its plot a bit -- but you can't go into ONE MAN'S FLAG without learning right away what Jack did in the debut book of the series, his serious and painful betrayal of Caitlyn and her brother that smashed their relationship and sent them spinning to opposite corners for the opening of the war. But fear not -- that revelation's barely scratched the surface of the first book. Should you read it before ONE MAN'S FLAG? Yes, probably. You don't "need" to, as the second book retells, quite deftly, the core of the first one. Oh well -- don't worry, you'll catch up, in either sequence.

The point is, Downing lays out the intriguing but less well-known crises of the opening salvoes of the war, including Ireland's Easter Rising, which any history book or website will tell you right away was timed to shrug off British rule ... but naively, and with very poor timing indeed. Still, it's the crisis that pulls Jack and Caitlyn back toward each other. Neither has been able to walk away from what their love means to them. And this time, it's not just Jack who struggles with loyalty: Caitlyn's commitment to honor her brother's death sets her up to potentially entrap Jack, for revenge, maybe even death.

That's where the book title takes on increasing importance: It's from an expression that is supposed to be an old one, parallel to "one man's meat is another man's poison" -- this time, "one man's flag is another man's shroud." If Jack is to serve his British masters honorably, he may put Caitlyn in danger. And if she is to honor her brother's commitment to the Irish independence cause, she will do worse to Jack.

Downing provides more than a page-turning plot, and more than fresh views of the events of this "war to end all wars" -- he looks into the face of War itself, over and over, not just through Jack and Caitlyn's eyes but also through Jack's brother Jed, who rises bitterly to Caitlyn's probing challenge, to spell out what it's like in the trenches:
"I used to take the human body for granted," he began conversationally. "What you saw was what you saw. Just another person. And sometimes I still see them that way. But mostly they're bags, bags made of skin, crammed full of blood and flesh. And the bags get punctured so easily, and all that stuff falls out. Slithers out, usually. Brains, intestines. You see men who suddenly realize that their bag has split, and they're desperately trying to hold it together, but they can't. You see someone you know well, someone you've seen talk and laugh and eat and smoke, and suddenly there's nothing there under the nose but blood pumping out, and the eyes are still open, full of horror. And you think, Thank God that isn't me." He fell silent, as if remembering something.
Facing such revelations, small wonder that it's Caitlyn even more than Jack who sees the disaster that the Great War is inflicting on the peoples of Europe. Will either she or Jack be able to see their own work clearly enough to survive, in any sense whole?

Sign me up for every book of this series. As in his earlier series, Downing portrays with detailed intensity the life of honorable people and especially of clear-eyed women in his espionage fiction. The epigraph for ONE MAN'S FLAG is a Virginia Woolf comment on women, ending, "As a woman my country is the whole world." Caitlyn might say the same -- and Jack might have time to hear it, before his nation pulls him back to his own sort of trenches to soldier onward.

If your mystery reading is wide and varied, you may have come across the Diana Gabaldon books -- oddly, and poignantly, Downing's books inhabit a parallel universe of strong passion and irresistible forces of history. And, of course, risk. Danger. And integrity.

Which is, of course, why I recommend them so strongly.


Annette said...

I've read all of the Station series, plus the first book, Jack of Spies, in the WWI series. I did not know he'd written a second. Thank you for your review and I can't wait to read One Man's Flag.

Beth Kanell said...

A pleasure, Annette! Let me know what you think of the new one.