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Review: Jack of Spies, by David Downing
Soho, 2014. 338 pp. $28

“The automobile business,” muses Jack McColl, the engaging British protagonist of this excellent thriller, “was not what it had been even two years before. . . . Spying, on the other hand, seemed an occupation with a promising future.”

If nothing else, Jack is prescient, for the year is 1913, and the infant secret services of Britain and Germany are gearing up for a war of which most Europeans have no inkling. It will be a global war, he senses, and indeed, his first assignment is to track German warships that have put in at Tsingtau, a German colony in China with its requisite population of spies. Jack’s being watched more carefully than he knows.

The harbor at Tsingtau, 1912. (Courtesy Bundesarchiv, Bild 116-424-127 / CC-BY-SA)

The harbor at Tsingtau, 1912. (Courtesy Bundesarchiv, Bild 116-424-127 / CC-BY-SA)

But he enjoys a dash of danger. Further, he realizes that selling luxury automobiles, his main job, will soon go the way of the dodo, thanks to Henry Ford and his Model T. Jack wants–or thinks he wants–a full-time position with his espionage organization, vaguely connected to the British Admiralty. But he goes back and forth, because his work to protect the empire challenges his political and moral beliefs in the rights of the poor and disenfranchised.

Already, this feels like new ground: a would-be spy who reflects on the bodies that fall in his wake. He tries to reconcile what he’s seen and done with the more abstract threat from German militarism and its leaders’ disrespect for the rights of others, and sometimes, he comes up empty. Even better, Jack’s work conflicts with his passion for the exquisite Caitlin Hanley, an American journalist he meets in China; among other tasks, he’s assigned to investigate links between German agents and Irish separatists whom Caitlin’s family supports. Her combination of progressive politics, will to change the world, and career ambition have smitten him, but for once, this is a spy novel in which the hero worries that the woman of his dreams doesn’t love him. She likely won’t if she learns who he really is.

Then there’s the spy stuff, which Jack has to learn on the job. He’s a quick study, but his opponents sometimes outwit him, and he has several narrow escapes. His social gifts and ability to speak nine languages let him assume false identities with relative ease. But he also feels out of his depth, which makes him human, a refreshingly anti-James Bond. Like the prototypical spy, Jack trots the world, from China to San Francisco to New York and beyond, but Downing’s grasp of history keeps the travel suitably difficult and the connections unreliable.

A few critics have taken the author to task, saying that he should concentrate on Jack’s on-the-job training and damp down the history. Fie, say I, and not just because I’m a historian of that era and love that stuff. Jack and Caitlin read newspapers avidly because they care deeply about politics, also the hub of their respective professions. I never felt as if they were batting headlines back and forth to dump information on the reader or paint a backdrop.

As for historical accuracy, it’s impressive, especially considering the wealth of detail. The narrative does suggest that conscription existed in Britain then, which isn’t true (not until 1916), and Jack’s surveillance of a German agent in New York would have been hampered by having to crank his Model T to start the engine.

But these nits are worth mentioning only because of discussions I’ve seen recently in the blogosphere that even one petty detail got wrong can ruin a book. Really? There isn’t a historian writing today who doesn’t accept the chances of error, so why should novelists be held to a higher standard? Imagination trumps pedantry, any day.

Sorry for my digression. Read Jack of Spies. You won’t be disappointed.

Disclaimer: I borrowed my reading copy of this book from the public library.