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Jack of Spies
on 24 September 2013
Author David Downing, best known for his historical mystery series set around the time of WWII (Zoo Station being the first) has created a compelling new character with Jack McColl. McColl is a wannabee spy, who was recruited for the British intelligence service on a part time basis; partly because of his job as a salesman for luxury cars, which allows him opportunities to travel, and partly because of his incredible talent for languages. Set just before the start of the first world war, we first meet Jack in China, where he has abandoned his younger brother Jed and friend Mac to carry on with the car business (he seems to do this regularly throughout the novel) while he is trying to obtain intelligence on the German navy ships in Tsingtau. Almost discovered, he flees to Shanghai, to meet up again with Jed and Mac and also to begin a relationship with New York journalist Caitlin Hanley. Caitlin is a very earnest young women, who believes passionately in a whole host of causes and, despite her desire to be independent and modern, seems quite happy to leap into bed with Jack (her confidence in early contraception seems a little misplaced considering the huge social impact of becoming an unmarried mother at that time).
This is obviously the first book in a new series and much of it involves establishing character. Jack is a pleasant young man, desperate to do the right thing and obviously enamoured with Caitlin. Although the best parts of the novel involve Jack actually spying - the strongest part of the whole book is at the beginning, where he is involved in trying to discover information for his spymaster Cummings - there is also a distance from the action which makes you less involved with the characters. Even when fleeing the Germans, Jack seems keen to downplay the danger and, although he is seriously attacked and knows he may be killed, he still fails to carry out even a cursory search when checking into a hotel room. Even when another agent is killed literally moments after he has visited him, you feel he is detached from events. Also, the plot involves him spying on the Germans, Indian nationalists and the Irish, who are clamouring for Home Rule. This creates a nice conflict of interest with Caitlin, whose family are Irish and who have links to people Jack is investigating. However, there is also a lot of the "sit down and I will explain it" versions of events; leaving you with a bewildering number of storylines, involving not only the build up to war or Irish nationalism, but strikes, Indian independence, oil in Mexico and women's suffrage.
Despite shortcomings, I did feel that Jack was a character to build on. With the end of book coinciding with the outbreak of WWI, there is the possibility of Jack becoming a full time spy (avoiding the "I left Jed and Mac to get on with....." storylines) and having the opportunity to become a great success. Espionage in that period was interesting, as it wasn't considered 'gentlemanly' to spy on your enemies - rather underhand and not playing the game. I am sure that Jack McColl will not let such issues worry him at all and I look forward to following his adventures. With a more direct storyline, a little more reality and some thrilling atmosphere, such as that in the first few chapters, this promises to be a great series.