Jack of Spies (A Jack McColl Novel)
Jack of Spies (A Jack McColl Novel)
David Downing
Soho Crime, 2014
352 pp., $27.95

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John Wilson

Jack of Spies

The first volume of a promising new series.

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A year ago, Soho Press published David Downing's Masaryk Station, the sixth and concluding installment in a superb series featuring British journalist John Russell, long resident in Germany. Spanning the period from 1938 to 1948, the series earned comparisons to the master of historical espionage, Alan Furst. The flavor of Downing's books is actually quite different from Furst's, but they share an evocative power grounded in intimate knowledge of place and time and the stuff of everyday life.

Now Soho Press has published Jack of Spies, in which Downing embarks on a new series centered on the period of World War I. Just as the previous series began before war in Europe had officially been declared, so the new series begins in 1913, just before the Chinese new year. The protagonist is Jack McColl, a British businessman, Scottish born and bred, with a sideline working for the UK's fledgling intelligence service. It helps that Jack is gifted with a "ridiculous knack" for learning languages.

Whereas, over the last 50 years, Europe during World War II has been the subject of more novels, movies, and reimaginings of every kind than any other historical period, the world of World War I—while hardly obscure—is not so immediately, overpoweringly familiar, especially not in the United States. And Jack of Spies begins not in Europe but in China, shifting next to San Francisco and other unexpected locations. Here a good deal of the plot involves Jack's efforts to find out how far the Germans are succeeding in stirring up trouble for the British by supporting independence efforts in India and Ireland.

There's a love interest, too: Caitlin Hanley, very much a "new woman," an American of Irish descent, a journalist with strong anti-imperial convictions, reluctant to be tied down in any way.

Jack McColl is not simply John Russell moved back in time and given a few superficial distinctives; he's a character in his own right. But he has some things in common with Russell—not least, a strong sense of the absurd and a distaste for cant to go along with his sympathy for the underdog. Like Russell, he's a winsome companion, which bodes well for the future of this new series. I, for one, am already eager for the next installment.

John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.

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