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JACK OF SPIES
by David Downing
Soho, May 2014
352 pages
$27.95
ISBN: 1616952687


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

David Downing's Berlin series, named for various train stations, provided a richly detailed account of life in Germany during the Second World War, as it focussed on the activities of John Russell, a spy with a range of masters, as he tried to stay alive and protect those dear to him through the war years. This series finally came to an end in MASARYK STATION, an inevitability that many readers viewed with regret.

Now Downing is back with another spy but a different war. His current protagonist is Jack McColl, who sells luxury cars and whose mission is to introduce these expensive items in parts of the world where they are as yet all but unknown. It is an occupation that provides excellent cover for another activity - a kind of semi-pro spying at the behest of the British Admiralty (or so he has been told). As the novel opens, he is sniffing around the harbour in Tsingtau, where the Germans hold a concession, checking out their fleet. Why McColl? Well, he's of relatively humble origins and such work was considered not quite suitable to gentlemen and furthermore, he really enjoys a bit of excitement. He does attract more than a bit of that in the course of his nosing about.

It is the spring of 1914 and the British are not altogether sure whom to keep a closer eye on - the Irish, the Germans, or the Indians. Downing is very good at capturing that immediate pre-war season when Europe was sleepwalking into a conflict that all thought would, at worst, be over in months and might be considered as a kind of beneficial purging of the sloth of peace. McColl, who saw service in the Boer War when he was not even eighteen, is under no illusions on that score.

All the same, he is something of an innocent when it comes to spying, though he is resourceful and has a remarkable facility with languages - he speaks nine of them. But these are the days of Reilly, Ace of Spies, when spies were more notable for inventiveness and bravado rather than discipline. McColl is no Reilly, either. He may be an accomplished linguist and a fast thinker, but he is also a very decent man on the whole. He is not tempted to unnecessary violence and has considerable and unexpected sympathy for the views of some of those he comes across in his travels - the Irish nationalist movement, the textile strikers in New Jersey, and especially the women's movement.

Whether or not McColl had thought much about the suffrage movement before meeting Caitlin Hanley, the daughter of an Irish-American family and a journalist, whose character seems inspired by Louise Bryant, he certainly supports it afterwards. Caitlin is a strong feminist, a supporter of social change on a number of fronts, and clearly a grateful acquaintance of Margaret Sanger. She and Jack fall into bed almost immediately and enjoy an active (some might say hyperactive) sex life at every opportunity, though the details are tactfully withheld. But much as he comes to love Caitlin, she does complicate his life dreadfully, as her brother is involved with an Irish activist who is planning terrorist attacks to impede British mobilization and McColl must do what he can to stop them. Can he do his duty to his country without destroying his relationship with Caitlin? It would seem unlikely.

In the course of the novel, Jack moves from China to San Francisco, to New York, to Mexico, finally ending up in London. He spends much of his time either in hotels, usually of the two-star variety, or on ships and trains. As a result, we see little of ordinary life in any of these places and, unlike John Russell, Jack can provide little but a superficial account of the social change that was occurring in the period. But this is the foundation novel of what promises to be a series that will take in the entire Great War and we can expect, as Downing settles into the period and becomes more at ease with it, less in the way of "news of the day" period detail and more of the deeply considered representation of the times which makes reading the Station series so rewarding.

At the very least, he has established a most intriguing cast of characters, from Jack himself, to the vivid and appealing Caitlin, to the Irish nationalist Aidan Brady, Jack's baby brother Jed, and the enigmatic Rainer von Schön, McColl's German counterpart.

There is something appealingly Boy's Ownish about JACK OF SPIES that makes it an attractive prospect for summer reading. More than that, however, it is a sound beginning for what looks to develop into an important series. Astute readers will want to be in at the start.

§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, May 2014

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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