Jack of Spies (from Soho Crime) is the first book in a new David Downing spy series. It follows Jack McColl, a luxury car representative and part-time spy, around the world in 1913, as he gathers useful military information for England…and sells an occasional vehicle. War with Germany is on the horizon, accompanied by often deadly anti-British rumblings in Ireland and India.
Better written than other well-known, high selling series, this book gets my rating of ☆☆☆☆☆☆½.
Jack of Spies, as in Downing’s John Russell spy series, immerses the reader fully in the times and places of the story, and creates a solid impression of historic realism. Germans and atrocities are connected on the first page, putting us anywhere between 1870 and 1945, when the Germans were most naughty. Eventually, the Kaiser is mentioned, and vwallah!* the action is revealed as pre-WWI. Jack lights a cigarette on page 4, dialogue begins on page 6; the stage is set and the drama begins.
Jack McColl is a clever clogs, always alert for opportunities to find information to benefit English plans for war and earn a few pounds sterling. His companions wander in and out of the story, more hindrance to him than help, but amusing, nonetheless.
Along the way, Jack falls in love with Caitlin, an Irish-American suffragette journalist. The relationship is not a promising one; she’s the daughter of a leftist union organizer, the sister of a member of the underground Clan na Gael. She, too, drifts in and out of his life, following her career. Thus she’s fairly three-dimensional, though their conversations revolve in predictable, historically authentic, feminist orbits.
Other than in his relationships, McColl acts with consistent logic, and the outcome of each sequence is always believable. Although there is no single antagonist, agents of various stripe inhabit the places he visits, often with violent results.
The theme is clearly the issue of conflicting loyalties, as shown by Jack’s refusal to give up his simultaneous relationships with the Royal Navy Intelligence Service, his problematic girl friend, and a sometimes friendly German spy. Even Jack’s employment with the car company mirrors this conflict. The pending question is: what will happen when these opposing loyalties collide?
This novel is a high-quality product, with only two typos that I noticed. Downing is a very talented writer, author of six other thrillers, two alternative history novels (The Red Eagles, and The Moscow Option), and several books on other subjects. I preferred his grey and gritty Zoo Station over Jack of Spies, and either of them head and shoulders over James Patterson/Maxine Paetro’s Eleventh Hour. The new series should be a winner once it gets rolling.
*Yes, I know, it’s voila, but a lot of people confuse that with a musical instrument.