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Jack of Spies (A Jack McColl Novel) Hardcover – May 13, 2014
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With his celebrated John Russell series, which began between the wars and extended through WWII, behind him, Downing launches a new series about a different war. It’s 1913, and tensions between England and Germany are escalating. Jack McColl is a luxury-car salesman whose travels take him around the world, offering plenty of opportunity to hear rumors and report back to the fledgling Royal Navy Intelligence Service. Spying is in its infancy, easily romanticized, and McColl is happy to see himself as a player in a global game in which men from various nations tested their wits against one another. From China to San Francisco to New York, McColl plays at espionage while finding time to fall for a radical newspaperwoman whose family may have ties to the IRA. Then the bodies start dropping, and the Great Game reveals itself as much more than matching wits. There’s maybe a bit too much scene-setting in this opening salvo, but it’s clear that the talented Downing is off and running once again, with an agreeable new hero and another richly atmospheric historical backdrop. HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: Backed by a $150,000 marketing and ad budget and the author’s first tour, Downing’s series debut may also become his biggest seller yet. --Bill Ott
Praise for Jack of Spies
A Seattle Times Best Mystery of 2014
An IndieNext Selection June 2014
A PW Top 10: Mysteries & Thrillers Pick for Spring 2014
A Library Journal Editor's Pick for Spring 2014
A Deadly Pleasures Best Book of 2014
"[Downing] is a master at bringing the past to life through the careful and often loving observation of even minor players and through the artful deployment of specific detail. In addition, Jack McColl's debut has a zest, an exoticism and a joie de vivre well-suited to an era when best sellers were being written by Zane Grey, suffragettes were demanding the vote, and opium parlors were a readily accessible temptation."
—Tom Nolan, The Wall Street Journal
"Moves along briskly and offers interesting facts about events now a century past. It’s always entertaining."
—The Washington Post
"When his “innocent” data-gathering escalates into knife fights and arrest warrants, McColl finds himself in an advanced game of espionage he hadn’t intended on playing. I can already see Gerard Butler in the lead role of the film version of this book."
“[Downing] is smart and erudite, with a knack for fully rounded characters and atmospheric but unfussy prose . . . a ripping good tale.”
—The Seattle Times
"Already had aficionados reaching for new adjectives to praise the author."
—The Independent (UK)
"Downing, a fiendish researcher, does a believable job of inserting McColl into real life events, and the result is a novel marked by surprising adventures of an oddly amiable sort."
"Downing seamlessly moves from Ian Flemming adventure to John le Carré politics across the broad canvas of a particular time period, never losing the intimacy with his characters."
—MysteryPeople Bookstore, Austin
"As McColl travels the globe, Downing deftly depicts the complex prelude to World War I a web of unrest that connects German coal-hoarding in China, anti-imperialist protests in India, and labor strife in New Jersey, among other seemingly disparate tensions . . . It’s fun to watch the novice spy learn his craft."
—The Onion A.V. Club
"Jack of Spies is lush with details about not only China and the U.S., but also England, Ireland, and even Mexico . . . with an urbane operative who is sure to be a hit with readers."
—The Denver Post
"A powerhouse of a series debut . . . Think Raiders of the Lost Ark as told by John le Carré. The book is just damn fun."
"As I was reading, I kept thinking this novel would be terrific theatre—Masterpiece, that is."
"A nice introduction to Jack [McColl] and His Majesty’s Service."
—Ft. Worth Star-Telegram
"A captivating, intelligent new World War I espionage tale by British author David Downing melds accurate historical detail with intricately crafted plotlines as it transports readers from China to San Francisco, Britain and beyond."
"[McColl] is a winsome companion, which bodes well for the future of this new series. I, for one, am already eager for the next installment."
—John Wilson, Books & Culture
"Just what we were waiting to read at the start of the summer."
"Few other contemporary writers meld history and espionage quite like David Downing."
"Some of the best and most involving espionage novels aren’t about super-spys, the James Bonds, but about ordinary people caught up in circumstances beyond their control. And that is what Downing does in Jack of Spies."
—Oline Cogdill, Mystery Scene Magazine
"Highly recommended for readers of spy novels like John le Carré as well as fans of historical thrillers, like The Meaning of Night and The Alienist."
—The Brooklyn Daily
"[A] master of the genre . . . 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."
"An attractive prospect for summer reading. More than that, however, it is a sound beginning for what looks to develop into an important series. Astute readers will want to be in at the start."
—Reviewing The Evidence
"Those who already know Downing's craft realize his deft hand with romantic passion and delicately portrayed merging of lust and love—and like the 'Station' series, Jack of Spies includes a serious affair of the heart."
"Realistic espionage (for once!), a deep feel for its period, an emphasis on the shock of the new that must have been felt at the development of world-shaking technology in the early twentieth century, a likeable and believable protagonist with enough of a personal life to ground him . . . I'm very much looking forward to the second installment."
"The talented Downing is off and running once again."
"This first installment of a proposed series moves deliberately but colorfully, with intelligent prose and a strong period feel."
"Fans of Downing’s previous spy tales will not be disappointed with this excellent series launch that is full of rich historical and cultural details, revealed as his protagonist learns the espionage business on the eve of World War I."
“Vividly explores the worldwide intrigues that spawned World War I, through the all-too-human British spy Jack McColl and the lover he betrays.”
—Francine Mathews, author of Jack 1939
"It would already be enough that Jack of Spies is a taut, highly intelligent spy thriller without it being a brilliant historical portrait and a captivating love story to boot. A remarkably engaging world tour of pre-World War One espionage featuring an honorable protagonist begging for a long series."
—Lyndsay Faye, author of The Gods of Gotham
Praise for David Downing's John Russell World War II Thriller series
"Epic in scope, Mr. Downing's "Station" cycle creates a fictional universe rich with a historian's expertise but rendered with literary style and heart."
—The Wall Street Journal
“A beautifully crafted and compelling thriller with a heart-stopping ending . . . An unforgettable read.”
—Charles Todd, author of the Inspector Ian Rutledge Series
"Downing's outstanding evocation of the times (as masterly as that found in Alan Furst's novels or Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther series), thematic complexity (as rich as that of John le Carré), and the wide assortment of fully rendered characters provide as much or more pleasure than the plot, where disparate threads are tied together in satisfying and unexpected ways."
—Library Journal, Starred Review
“Downing is brilliant at weaving history and fiction . . . equally clever and unexpected.”
—Toronto Globe and Mail
Top customer reviews
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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.
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.