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3.8 out of 5 stars
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3.8 out of 5 stars
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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.
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on 2 November 2013
It is not easy to identify what is wrong with this novel. The idea, a story about a rather amateur British spy in the weeks leading up to the start of the Great War, is excellent. But, somehow, it doesn't really work.

Part of the problem is that it is all rather disjointed. We start off in China, where the baddies are Germans. We move to California where the Germans are still baddies, but the Indians are added. Then we rush to New York to add the Irish and some Americans to the pot. As if that isn't enough, we set sail for Mexico, then London, then Dublin and then the south coast of England.

Judging by the number of pages, the book is not very long. But it feels enormously long. We are supposed to be sustained by the underlying love story, the relationship between our hero McColl and the American journalist, Caitlin. But it is not a credible love story. To start with, the author rushes into the sex far too early. There is no courtship. They just tumble into bed (with the usual cheap novel's description of gorgeous breasts and the bush between her legs detaining us for only a minute or two). That done, we are supposed to believe this is true love.

The reader gets the impression, probably rightly, that the research was excellent. And that, in a way, may be part of the problem. Is Downing just a little too keen to show off his knowledge of events in China, America, Mexico and Ireland in 1914? It is also a little tedious that we have to be told of every wonderful new invention of the time. And one of them, the telephone answering machine, just doesn't ring true. Could the hero really have left a message on the British Consulate's telephone? I was a child in the 1950s and 1960s: I never came across a device which could automatically answer the telephone and record a message (but my own research does reveal that a device was created in the 1950s in America - though there was no commercially successful machine until 1960). It is simply not possible that the British had answerphones in their far flung consulates in 1914. But that is a pedantic complaint.

On reflection, I think the real problem with Jack of Spies is that Downing has tried to cram too much into it. Maybe, now he has created his hero, the next book will be less convoluted and the characters can be properly developed. I hope so because, as I say, the idea is excellent.

Charles
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on 14 November 2013
I purchased this book to take on holiday with a great deal of optimism having read and enjoyed the author's 'zoo' series. What a disappointment, cardboard characters, unrealistic love interest (particularly for the period) and just too much happening, it seemed like enough plot for two novels but hurriedly executed. Gulling the stupid German sentry in Tsingtao, the shenanigans on the transcontinental train are reminiscent of 'The lady vanishes, North by North-West and The Orient Express by way of James Bond'. Our hero has a charmed life badly injured in the Boer war and nearly dying if he hadn't been saved by Ghandi, yes the Mahatma (retold in flashback). He is then attacked and all but killed TWICE in the course of this novel. Stabbed in Shanghai and shot in Dublin and survived to rescue the Empire having fallen into the Liffey of 1914 with two gunshot wounds, incredible. The chapters involving the adventure in Mexico are irrelevant as is the curious visit to a Shanghai opium den. A previous reviewer has suggested that this novel reads as though it were written by a less mature and less experienced writer than the David Downing we thought we had come to know and suggested that it had been written before the 'zoo' series, even 'ghost' written does not stretch credibility beyond the imagination.
If 'Jack of Spies' seeks to put shape into the jingoism of late Edwardian England and attempts to write in the idiom of the time (as Patrick O'Brian achieves in his Georgian navy novels) the 'Riddle of the Sands' was better written than this. If this had been David Downing's first novel I suspect it would have been his last.
Shame!
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on 10 November 2013
Downing's Berlin Station novels were grippingly atmospheric - having read Zoo Station I had to get hold of all the others so that I could continue inhabiting Downing's particularly sinister world. The Great War era being one of special interest as well, I started Jack of Spies with eager anticipation. WHAT a let-down! The characters have absolutely no depth or credibility, the plot is fragmented and overly frenetic. It's almost impossible to believe that this is by the same author as the Station novels. I agree with an earlier reviewer - this has the amateurish feel of juvenilia, of an author yet to reach his mature peak and if submitted by an unknown as a first novel would never ( and should never) have been published. I had so little interest in McColl and his activities ( particularly his unconvincing sex life) that I grew tired half way through and gave up. Regretfully, I will not read any more in the promised series - but I will certainly revisit 'the Stations'.
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on 30 September 2015
After reading the 'Station' series I was expecting something better than this. No atmosphere and very reminiscent of "and with one leap he was free" writing. Nothing like the 'Station' stories where the atmosphere forced the reader to turn the page and pray it all turns out well. The author needs to do some serious editing before he writes any more in this vein. I am surprised the publishers allowed it to go to print in this format. Very very disappointing.
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on 1 November 2015
Excellent new series from Downing, though without the (for me) more compelling setting of WWII Europe. The Irish connection is interesting, and the pan-American train ride an amusing prequel to Bond, perhaps?
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on 20 January 2014
Interesting novel capturing elements of the start of modern espionage. Real charactors, 'C' as head of fledging MI6 for example and people involved in the Irish independence struggle at the time were woven into it. Problems of 'ungentlemanly' conduct were explored. It was possible to empathise with the hero.
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on 17 July 2014
I have read all his other novels and found this one just as brilliant. The research gone into by Mr Downing must have been incredible. The 'zoo' were great but can't wait for the next instalment of this series. Thank you very much. Clive B
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on 12 July 2014
It was an enjoyable book but not what I would call riveting, it took you along at a gentle pace which in a way was in keeping with the time/era that the book itself was set in.
Would I purchase another of his books I'm really not sure?
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on 29 December 2014
Nowhere near as good as his "Station" series.

This could be the start of another interesting series - pre-World War One leading into his spying during the war. But this first volume doesn't really work. Why?

Firstly, there are simply too many locations and plot lines thrown in together. None are really fully explored and the links between them seem tenuous. China and Shanghai would have made an interesting story. Mexico could have been expanded or the Irish dimension. Throw them all together and add America's West and East coasts and you are left with an undeveloped hodge podge.

Secondly, the characters are undistinguished. The hero is a bit boys own paper, amateur adventurer who somehow gets the girl after she propositions him.

Finaly there are the romantic interludes which involve little romance and lots of disapearances into hotel rooms with no real sex.

This could have been two or three good novels and interesting stories but all lumped together it doesnt really work.
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