JACK OF SPIES: DAVID DOWNING

Posted: March 25, 2014 in China, England, Germany, Historical, Indian sub continent, Ireland, review, spy story

51FLkOS0cLL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_SX385_SY500_CR,0,0,385,500_SH20_OU02_David Downing is the author of six John Russell spy thrillers set in World War II Berlin one of which, Stettin Station, I read and reviewed for Euro Crime back in 2009. That series is now completed so I was interested to get an ARC from publishers Soho Crime of the first book in what promised to be a fine new spy series set around the Great War. Jack McColl, a luxury car salesman, is also working  for British spymaster Cumming and hoping to obtain a full time post in the fledgling intelligence service.

Cumming is based on George Mansfield Smith- Cumming, the original C, first director of the Secret Intelligence Service SIS whose top agent during the Great War was the “Ace of Spies” Lieutenant Sidney George Reilly, the man Ian Fleming probably based his creation James Bond. It has always amused me that the quintessential British secret agent was based on a  man going by the name Sidney Reilly, who was actually Georgi Rosenblum from Odessa.

The story starts with McColl in Tsingtao, a German colony on the Chinese mainland, where along with his younger brother Jed and his friend Mac he is marketing the Maia luxury automobile. McColl, the spy, uses local prostitutes to obtain pillow talk information from German officials and naval officers about their East Asian Squadron. Tsingtao fell to our Japanese allies early in the war, but this German colony left the legacy of a beer sold widely in our supermarkets. When one of his young Chinese information gatherers asks too many questions and the German officer becomes suspicious, McColl has to flee Tsingtao travelling by rail to Shanghai. 

McColl himself was thirty-two years old, and had been born into a world without automobiles or flying machines, phonographs or telephones, the wireless or moving pictures. Who in his right  mind would exchange this thrilling new world for battle fields soaked in blood? 

Well that question was answered earlier in the chapter by a supposed German water engineer, talking about the Kaiser.

He grew up playing soldiers and can’t seem to stop.

Simplistic but probably not too far from the truth.

McColl begins an involvement with the beautiful  suffragette journalist Caitlin Hanley, and the story moves rapidly on as he journeys from Shanghai across the Pacific to San Francisco; enjoying Caitlin’s company at every opportunity despite worries about her family’s affiliations and her antagonism to British colonialism. There is much more to McColl’s journey, and the reader learns about  working conditions in American factories, India’s struggle for independence, the Irish problem, and the Mexican revolution.  

This book was an easy read and there was tension and excitement in places, but I could not get over the feeling that there was more than enough international incidents packed into the 338 pages to fill another couple of books. I wondered if some of the plot, that occurring at Tampico and Vera Cruz, was added later with thoughts of an American readership. Unfortunately the frenetic action meant the characters were a bit predictable and somewhat naive, with McColl’s ability to sustain punishment and get out of impossible situations a bit more James Bond than Richard Hannay. A good, but slightly disappointing read, and I will be very interested to see how the rest of the series develops.  

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Comments
  1. TracyK says:

    I want to like this book (and learn from it) because of the time period, so I will be giving it a try.

  2. […] reviews of Jack of Spies : Kirkus Reviews ; Crime Scraps Review; Washington Post; Publisher’s Weekly; Rhapsody in […]

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