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Showing 1-10 of 135 reviews(Verified Purchases). See all 191 reviews
VINE VOICEon March 29, 2017
I’ve enjoyed this change of pace from Downing’s John Russell series set in Nazi Germany. It set at the eve of World War I as European empires jockey for influence around the world, as many fear the Kaiser Wilhelm’s saber-rattling will lead to war. It dragged a bit at times but I decided to give it the fifth star for its overall merit.

Modern spying is in its infancy. Using his job as car salesman to cover his work spying for Britain, Jack McColl goes to the far side of the world to glean the intentions of the German Pacific fleet. In China he meets an American journalist. Caitlin Hanley is caught up in left-wing issues from women’s suffrage to labor unions, not the conventional life for a woman of her time. McColl finds her intriguing and her lack of conventionality means she’s open to passionate nights in hotels and steamship staterooms. But her Irish-American family is entangled in the explosive politics of Irish independence, and McColl works for the British empire.

They begin what they agree is a short-term fling, but as they follow one another to San Francisco and then New York, their feelings deepen. Caitlin, however, doesn’t know what Jack really does besides sell luxury cars.

Through McColl’s eyes we see the brewing war, one few want or face realistically. A Boer War veteran, (a period in which he met Gandhi, not yet famous) McColl has few illusions. The Chinese chafe under the oppression of European colonial enclaves. The Indians and Irish agitate for independence. The British must consider a disturbing possibility: that Indian and Irish rebels want to throw off the British so badly they’ll conspire with the Germans to do it. The Germans knows that every colonial uprising ties down British troops, keeping them away from a European front.

Later we view labor agitation in the USA, and then Progressive Era neo-colonialism as Wilson intervenes at Veracruz in the Mexican Civil War. McColl's global trip makes this a little like "Around the World in Eighty Days" with a spy story subplot.

As he did in the previous series, Downing gives us a protagonist caught between liberal sympathies and the needs of his empire. (McColl’s outlook has been tweaked enough that he sometimes sounds more 2014 than 1914, but Downing generally keeps this from being too grating.) McColl finds his way in the era of steamships, telegraphs and Model T Fords, of the IWW and the IRA. And, only distantly tied to his home office by telegrams and the occasional conference with a British consul here or there, he must solve problems with his own resources. I will read the next couple of installments which have already been published.
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on May 25, 2014
A disappointing, meandering pre-WW1 spy story. The protagonist is a derring-do, multi-lingual spy-in-development. No adversary in the story rises to the level of antagonist. A step-down from the "Station Series," regrettably.
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on June 25, 2014
In Amazon's ad for this book, it is described as a thriller. Not So! The story is interesting, but provides no thrills at all. The spy activities are very modest, and are hardly the stuff of big espionage. I am surprised the Brits even paid the protagonist for his meager output of product. All in all, the plot is mostly about his romance with a reporter. No action scenes, no shootouts, and very little of anything else to qualify it as a thriller. There are a few sections where the tension increases, but only a tad. It makes one wonder what the main character did as a spy once WWI broke out.
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British author David Downing is very well known for his WW2 and post-war Berlin mysteries, all named after Berlin (and Prague) train stations. "Zoo Station", "Stettin Station", etc are among his titles. When his latest book, "Masaryk Station", was published earlier this year, I realised that he was probably ending that series because he'd run out of Berlin train stations to name his books after. Masaryk Station is in Prague.

Well, not only has Downing left Berlin, he's also left WW2. He's moved to an earlier war - The Great War - just in time for the 100th year anniversary of its beginning. He has retained a British hero, Jack McColl, but moved the action - so far - to China, the US, Mexico, Ireland, and Britain. Quite a lot to cover in "Jack of Spades" 290 pages. And we're only up to September, 1914.

The world was a complicated place in 1913 when the book begins. Jack McColl is with his younger brother and a co-worker in China, trying to sell a hand-made car - the "Maia" - to rich Chinese in Peking and Shanghai. But McColl is more than a car salesman - he's a sometime agent for the British navy, sent to look into the Chinese city of Tsingtao. The Germans had seized the harbor in 1897 and turned that part of the city into a little piece of Germany - complete with German street names. McColl, travels there, sees what he has to see, meets a German agent, and returns to Shanghai, barely surviving assassination attempts, and sends his info back to his superiors in London. He also meets a charming young American woman journalist in Shanghai who seems to shed her clothing and inhibitions and jump into his bed for randy romps, probably a bit too easily for the time. But the sex is good, and McColl and Miss Caitlin remain together through trips to the US, Mexico, etc.

The purpose of a first book in a series is to establish the main characters and most of the supporting ones. The author also has to set the scene, the times, etc. David Downing has done this in "Jack of Spies". The problem is that he has made the book a far more complicated than it probably should be. The "enemy of my enemy is my friend" is taken to absurd lengths as Germany, Ireland, China, Japan, Mexico, and the US are mixed up as in a kaleidoscope, and the different countries are in a constantly changing pattern of friends and enemies. It's all a bit confusing, but what the hell, it's only a book. I hope Downing's next Jack McColl book is somewhat less ambitious and the story told is simpler.

Downing is a good writer and I'm glad he's back with a new series. I'm looking forward to the second, third, etc. book in the series.
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on March 19, 2014
I read the Station series of books by David Downing and found them absorbing. The character of Jack McColl, for me, failed to grab my attention in the same way that John Russell did. Perhaps I expected too much. The story moves at a rapid pace, though, from German occupied Tsingtau in China, to San Francisco, New York, Mexico, London and Dublin. The story is well researched. I especially enjoyed his narrative about the police attack on rallying workers in Patterson, New Jersey, but I found the relationship between McColl and Caitlin Hanley a bit tedious. The ending, too, seemed abrupt, but I suppose the author is eager to bring us the next instalment of the businessman turned spy. I don't think Jack McColl will ever measure up to the ultimate ace of spies, Sidney Reilly and even the title alludes to that fact. It can only get better.
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on May 24, 2014
Having read all six of David Downing’s “station series” about Germany in World War II, I was looking forward to his new series on World War I. Unfortunately I was disappointed. Simply put his lead characters, Jack McColl and Caitlin Hanley, lack the depth of John Russell and Effie Koenen. Perhaps it’s the times. The world of 1913-14 had yet to experience the horror of the trenches, the ideological struggles of the 1920s and 30s, the Great Depression and the rise of Hitler. It was a simpler time.

Downing’s protagonists are Jack McColl, an automobile salesman initially freelancing as an intelligence agent before moving on to that line of work full time and his romantic interest Caitlin Henry, a very attractive proto-feminist working as a journalist. Jack’s spying takes him to the German concession of Tsingtao, China, San Francisco, New York, Mexico during the U.S. occupation of Veracruz, Dublin and London. Quite a full itinerary, but he is far from operating on the high political level of Sidney Reilly, the “Ace of Spies”. It is more the day-to day stuff dealing with naval deployments, arms shipments and IRA terrorism. Through it all McColl and Henry find the time to frequently end up in bed.

There are appearances of the founding fathers of British Intelligence. We meet McColl’s boss, George Smith-Cumming the head of the Special Intelligence Service responsible for foreign activities, now MI-6, and Vernon Kell the domestic intelligence chief of the Secret Intelligence Bureau, now MI-5.

There is a lot of good stuff in this book and it is worth the read, but I only hope that in future volumes Downing will improve his character development under the strains of The Great War.
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on February 3, 2016
Digital publishing has turned so many terrible writers into popular "authors," especially in the espionage/mystery genre. There is just so much dreck her on Amazon.

This book certainly isn't. The pacing and character development are perfect. The reader truly feels for the main character, Jack McColl, a part-time spy. His conscience is twisted like a pretzel as he tries to balance so many conflicting factors -- protecting a British Empire that can be downright beastly to its subjects; lying to his brother and best friend; and, ultimately, misleading and spying on the love of his life. Through it all, Jack does what most of would probably do: rationalize our cognitive dissonance and do our best to keep calm and carry on.

The author's settings are lushly described, and we're transported back to early 1900s China, New York, the backwaters of the Mexican Revolution and other exotic locales, as they call say.

It's nice to pick up an espionage book in 2016 and find that it is not cliche-ridden garbage. Definitely a thinking person's spy novel.
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on July 1, 2014
I am a huge fan of Downing's previous books and was highly anticipating this one. Sadly, I must give it only 2 stars possibly 3. The plot essentially revolves around Home Rule in Ireland and the women's movement in the early 1900's. Jack is an unofficial spy for the British government at a time when government agencies were in their infancy in developing these recruits. Jack travels around the world and a good deal of the book takes place in the United States.
Like other authors who have attempted to relocate their main characters to the US, the plot suffers and the characters seem lost . The romantic relationship between Jack and his Irish-American lover seemed hollow. Finally, about 1/2 way thru the book, I just didn't care any longer what happened to any of them. Downing has, and can, do better.
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on June 23, 2014
International espionage in China, the U.S., Mexico, Britain and Ireland in the days leading up to WWI seems like rich and fertile territory for exploring the conspiracies involving the Germans and Irish revolutionaries seeking their freedom from London's controlling and repressive policies. Unfortunately, the effort falls far short of its potential delivering few surprises and mundane plotting carried forward by unconvincing generic characters whose dialogue and conduct bear little if any mark of authenticity of or specificity to the era in which the novel takes place. The love story feels contrived and the sex scenes derivative of dozens of others, without for a moment creating characters whose desires, hopes and fears are palpable and clearly drawn.
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on August 12, 2014
Jack McColl is a young Scotsman bored with selling luxury automobiles, so it’s no wonder that he opts for a life of intrigue and adventure when an offer comes along from the Admiralty to do a little spying on the side while on a sales trip to China. All he need do is nose around the German enclave of Tsingtao in the northeast to see what the wily Boche might be cooking up in response to British Navy maneuvers in the region.

In the weeks that follow, McColl travels to the USA, Mexico, England, and Ireland on one assignment after another from his unseen boss in London. The enemies in his sights switch from Germans to Indians to Irish and back to Germans again. Given that McColl is an agent of the senescent British Empire, engaged in the losing struggle to hold onto one-third of the world, I found myself rooting for the Indians and the Irish and wondering why McColl didn’t switch sides somewhere along the way. I finished reading the book only because I kept expecting this development as the climactic event in the story.

No such luck.

As you’ve no doubt surmised, this tale of spies and derring-do is set in an earlier era — a century ago, actually, on the brink of the First World War, when it could actually still be said that “gentlemen don’t read other people’s mail.” So, once he leaves the auto business behind and goes full-time, McColl becomes one of an early generation of professional espionage agents. The exotic setting and the consequential events of the time should provide a platform for a thrilling novel. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. The writing style is undistinguished, the character development limited, the ending underwhelming, and the plotting throughout surprisingly lame for a professional writer.

David Downing is the British author of a dozen books, including both an earlier series of six historical spy novels featuring John Russell and four nonfiction books that include popular biographies of Clint Eastwood and Jane Fonda. Never having read any of the man’s other works, I can’t say whether he’d be better off in another genre. The only conclusion I draw is that I’m not inclined to pick up any of his other novels.
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