Then, presto! American elections are "messed with" by today's Russia. Understanding the motives and thinking of the massive nation on the other side of the globe suddenly matters in new ways. Pull up the curtain on a riveting drama -- and enhance it with David Downing.
Downing, whose recent espionage series are published by Soho Press (Soho Crime), came into his own in the "Station" series that he set during World War II in (mostly) Berlin, Germany, with protagonist John Russell trying to operate as a person of integrity during the Nazi years there. Then in 2013 he leapt back in time to World War I with the release of Jack of Spies -- the first in the Jack McColl series. Jolting thought it was for readers to change wars, continents, and protagonists, Downing made it clear that his understanding of the major shifts of the Great War provided yet another panoramic view of how forces of history shape the stage.
THE DARK CLOUDS SHINING is the fourth and final Jack McColl book (I wonder what war Downing will tackle next? hold that thought). This time the most important action and tensions take place in Bolshevik Russia, although from March 1921 to August 1921, McColl is swept across the Russian Revolution's effect and southward into the next revolution in action: that of Mahatma Ghandi leading India into rebellion against British overlords. There are shootings, betrayals, passionate lovemaking -- but most of all, Downing finds his "inner Russian" in this book, often pausing as his characters inhabit dingy apartments, train cars, and safe houses, to let them argue the right and wrong of their efforts.
At first the dark reflections occur mostly around Caitlin, McColl's lost love from the first book in the series; Caitlin's enmeshed in battling for women's rights and children's safety in this new Bolshevik world, working with the brilliant woman leader Kollontai at the Zhenotdel organization. Kollontai sees what Caitlin can't yet:
"Ever since the civil war ended, we've been in retreat. Oh, I know we've had victories -- the abortion law, the apprenticeships, the unveilings the other week -- but they're all things that don't cost money and don't inconvenience men. ... Things I thought we'd settled for good, we're having to fight for all over again. We're regressing, in more ways than one. ... In order to survive, we Bolsheviks have done some terrible things ... we must hold ourselves to a higher standard, if we want to save our revolution. If we don't, then heaven help Russia."This dark sense of realization will eventually free Caitlin to make frightening personal choices, as an M-Cheka officer, Komarov, takes control of her life and moves her back into contact with Jack McColl. Whether it's arguing with a political opposite number or testing McColl's allegiance to Britain, to the best of Russia, and to her, Caitlin takes the measure of what's right.
"We must fight each battle as it comes," Caitlin said, more to herself than her friend.
McColl is less likely to vacillate: He's operating under specific orders to stop a possible international disaster, while trying to also "hide in plain sight" as Komarov takes over his life, too. In Komarov, the author updates Russian philosophy and literary wisdom, as the slightly inebriated -- but canny -- Russian secret service officer reveals his soul (or the part of it he's willing to share) to Jack McColl:
"In my first year as an investigator, I was jut a problem solver, and quite a good one, if I say so myself. But if that's all a city policeman does, he ends up holding his nose There are no men better placed to understand society than those that police it and no men more wary of radical change, because they know they'll be in the front line when the bombs and bullets start flying. Which is one of the reasons policemen drink a lot," he added, tipping back the glass of vodka.These meditations darken and deepen the crisis that McColl must manage (while appearing to "be managed"). Downing is so skillful in his pacing that although perhaps a quarter of this 368-page action novel is spent in such conversations, there's never a sense of drag. The espionage, difficult choices, and knife-edge balance of whether Caitlin and McColl will ever reconcile keep the suspense taut and the twists powerful.
Can you read this without reading the rest of the series first? Sure. In a sense, by spacing the titles a year apart, Downing almost forces that sense onto readers. But if you can make time, I'd recommend reading straight through the four Jack McColl books, to appreciate the buildup of costs that Downing presents.
And although you may not want to directly apply McColl's choices to world politics a neat century later, you'll surely come away with a better grasp of Putin's background and sense of pride and entitlement. As Jack Kennedy (a highly uneven yet brilliant past American president) pointed out half a century ago, understanding both our allies and our enemies as people is essential for our own survival.
David Downing's masterful "Russian Revolution" sequence is a great way to get started.
PS: Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.