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On the eve of World War I, a British spy tangle with Germans plotting with colonial rebels against the British Empire
on 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.