JACK OF SPIES by David Downing, Book Review

Jack of Spies Synopsis
Jack of Spies - David Downing

It is 1913, and those who follow the news closely can see the world is teetering on the brink of war. Jack McColl, a Scottish car salesman with an uncanny ear for languages, has always hoped to make a job for himself as a spy. As his sales calls take him from city to great city—Hong Kong to Shanghai to San Francisco to New York—he moonlights collecting intelligence for His Majesty’s Navy, but British espionage is in its infancy and Jack has nothing but a shoestring budget and the very tenuous protection of a boss in far-away London. He knows, though, that a geopolitical catastrophe is brewing, and now is both the moment to prove himself and the moment his country needs him most.

Unfortunately, this is also the moment he begins to realize what his aspiration might cost him. He understands his life is at stake when activities in China suddenly escalate from innocent data-gathering and casual strolls along German military concessions to arrest warrants and knife attacks. Meanwhile, a sharp, vivacious American suffragette journalist has wiled her way deep into his affections, and it is not long before he realizes that her Irish-American family might be embroiled in the Irish Republican movement Jack’s bosses are fighting against. How can he choose between his country and the woman he loves? And would he even be able to make such a choice without losing both? (Soho Crime)

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Jack of Spies is the first title in a new spy series from David Downing, author of the bestselling six title John Russell ‘Station’ series. I love a good spy novel and seem to have missed the boat on his ‘Station’ series, so I was keen to get on board at the beginning of this new one. Also, with so many spy novels we read set during WWII or the Cold War period after, this pre-WWI setting sounded like a refreshing change.

On that score I was right. In Jack of Spies Downing evocatively depicts the youthful enthusiasm and naivety of a world before it’s first large scale war. Automobiles were just starting to appear in city streets and the suffragette and union movements were calling for change. These were exciting times for motivated individuals. Anything seemed possible.

McColl was able to put faces to several of the names Caitlan had mentioned: the anarchist Margaret Sanger, whose was vigorously lecturing two much younger men on the politicl significance of birth control; the author Sinclair Lewis, holding court with a pair of younger women; the journalist Jack Reed, who moved from group to group, wineglass in one hand, cigarette in the other, dropping off ideas like an intellectual postman.

In Jack McColl, Downing has created a leading man strong enough to command a series. McColl has enough life experience and intelligence to see shadows on the horizon, but has not yet let it dampen his enthusiasm for life and seizing the opportunities it can throw his way (and he seems to have nine lives). His pragmatic sense of duty towards his homeland, coupled with his respect for all individuals no matter their race, creed or colour, are admirable and appealing traits.

Never have I come across a novel that features quite so many different locales in such an earnest manner. McColl travels to a raft of exotic locations using many different forms of transportation, from Shanghai to Mexico, Glasgow to New York, each brought to life through Downing’s vivid and detailed descriptions of scenery and cultural peculiarities. I also thought meaningful references to well known historical figures such as Sun Yatsen and Ghandi were nice touches that signaled the authors ambition and scope for the Jack McColl series more broadly and neutralised to a small degree the escapism this first novel exudes.

For all the positives however, my reading experience was not wholly satisfactory.

Firstly, despite the strength of the execution of individual plot elements within Jack of Spies, the manner in which the story pieces were combined to form this novel felt a little loose to me. So many different issues are introduced. For instance, at about two-thirds of the way through McColl gets sent on a mission that I felt added little to the story arc, other than showing the character himself in a good light. Perhaps this is symptomatic of this novel being only one piece of a much larger, and I suspect already plotted, multi novel series.

Secondly, while those of us who review works based on ‘advance reader copies’ try very hard not to let typos or grammatical errors that will be picked up before final publication impact our reviews/assessment, if a work is too ‘unpolished’ it can hamper the reading experience. In this case, my immersion in the story was jarred repeatedly by my copy of Jack of Spies showing blank spaces where historically appropriate pronouns (titles of newspapers, shows, etc) were obviously still to be inserted.

With Jack of Spies, David Downing has introduced the world to a leading man I am keen to see more of, and the promise of another vividly depicted and escapist historical spy series.

BOOK RATING: The Story 3.5 / 5 ; The Writing 3 / 5  — Overall 3.25

Jack of Spies is available from:

Amazon | Kobobooks | B&NBook Depository | Indigo | Booktopia(Aus)

Genre: Crime-Detective, Historical, Action-Adventure, Romance, Mystery

About the Author, David Downing

David Downing grew up in suburban London. He is the author of six books in the John Russell espionage series, set in WWII Berlin: Zoo Station, Silesian StationStettin StationPotsdam StationLehrter Station, and Masaryk Station and the nonfiction work, Sealing Their Fate: The Twenty-Two Days That Decided World War II. He lives with his wife in Guildford, England.

Other reviews of Jack of Spies

Goodreads, Kirkus Reviews ; Crime Scraps Review; Washington Post; Publisher’s Weekly; Rhapsody in Books

* My receiving an ecopy of this title from Soho Press for review purposes in no way hindered the expression of my honest opinions in the above.