I’m normally terrible about staying on top of my favorite authors and genres. I’ll find out about a book months after it’s been released and be mystified as to how I could have missed it. But this time was different. David Downing’s (author of the John Russell/Station series) Jack of Spies kept popping up on lists of things you might like if you liked Alan Furst. For once I planned ahead and put myself on the hold list for the book early.
The book is set in 1913 on the eve of World War I, with car salesman/spy Jack McColl traveling the world trying to flog cars and doing a spot of espionage for Mansfield Smith-Cumming, the first director of English MI6. It opens in Tsingtau China, with McColl checking on the defenses of the German Naval Base there. The reader follows McColl across the globe from major city to major city and from adventure to adventure. The book would indeed appeal to Alan Furst fans. The world Downing creates is minutely detailed: You walk the streets of historic places with such precision you could follow your movements on a map if you wished. It also has a bit of the quality of an early John Le Carre novel in that you have a lone spy trying to do his job in the face of not only the enemy but also his own government’s bureaucracy. McColl often laments the hoops he has to jump through to get paid and a major theme of the book is the emotional cost of supporting England’s pro-empire ethos.
The detail of the book tends to slow down the pace, which might frustrate those looking for a fast moving narrative. The author also has a penchant for historical name dropping. Famous historical figures are always popping up in the most improbable places. McColl remembers meeting Gahandi when he was wounded in the Boar War, which seemed a little improbable. However, if you like historical armchair travel and don’t mind historical figures wandering through periodically you will enjoy this book.
Watch David Downing read from Jack of Spies: