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Jack of Spies (A Jack McColl Novel) Hardcover – May 13, 2014
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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.
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.