Jack of Spies
Here is all you really need to know: JACK OF SPIES is the first installment in a new espionage series by an underappreciated master of the genre. David Downing is a seasoned author who has written a host of novels under pseudonyms, as well as his own name; with regard to the latter, he is best known for the six-volume John Russell series, set in Berlin during World War II.
Downing's new work takes place in the very early years of the 20th century, when it seems that rumors of a war involving the major powers and the circumstances upon which they are based are rapidly moving the dial from “if” to “when.” Read the first paragraph, a deceptively sedate but quietly powerful opening that includes a description of Tsingtau, a German colony in China as seen through the eyes of Jack McColl. Before you know it, you’ve been tugged --- gently but insistently --- into the book. You won’t be sorry.
"Downing is capable of wringing more suspense out of a simple cat-and-mouse chase played out in a train yard than some of his better-known contemporaries can with a squadron of troubled covert-ops agents. That quality alone makes Downing and JACK OF SPIES a joy to read."
Jack has two employers. His primary job is that of a sales representative for a luxury automobile company (not many of those around in 1913), which is determined to have at least one of their cars in every major country in the world. This makes Jack a busy man, as he travels from San Francisco to China to New York. These excursions, with stops at various and sundry ports of call, provide Jack, who has a talent for multiple languages, with cover for his other job, which is the gathering of military intelligence for Her Majesty. His handler, as it were, is a seasoned naval officer named Cumming, who is more heard of than seen in the book. Cumming basically tells Jack what to look for and learn, which he does as unobtrusively as possible, whether by covertly observing a German shipyard or paying off the owner of a Chinese brothel frequented by German officers in order to harvest information gathered during the course of pillow talk.
When Jack's cover is blown, he relies on his wits and fleet-footedness to get out of the Chinese equivalent of Dodge and to Shanghai, where his brothers, who are unaware of his double life, are waiting for him as they are anticipating the delivery of a new automobile for a customer. Jack, however, is more interested in a woman there named Caitlin Hanley, a suffragette journalist from the United States who has captured his attention. Their affair starts to blossom just as Jack's spymasters begin asking more and more of him, tasks that are somewhat beyond the scope of what he had originally signed on for. He is also the target of a mysterious assassination attempt of unknown motive, one that almost takes him off the board early on.
A further problem is that Caitlin’s journalistic endeavors demonstrate a transparent sympathy for Irish and Indian independence, concepts with which the English are in opposition and the Germans are more than willing to use to undermine Great Britain in the run-up to the war, which is almost certain to occur. Jack may have to betray Caitlin, as well as his personal feelings, to keep his spymasters happy. It is entirely possible, though, that it is Jack who is being manipulated. To put it in modern terms: Is Jack he player? Or is he being played? That is the crux of the dilemma he ultimately faces here.
Jack will never be mistaken for James Bond or even James West. There are no fancy gadgets (other than the luxury cars Jack and his brothers sell), and the explosions and karate that are the stock in trade in contemporary spy thrillers are relegated to second place in favor of drama. Downing is capable of wringing more suspense out of a simple cat-and-mouse chase played out in a train yard than some of his better-known contemporaries can with a squadron of troubled covert-ops agents. That quality alone makes Downing and JACK OF SPIES a joy to read. This series is slated for a total of six volumes; there’s no better time to jump on than right now.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on May 16, 2014