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Originally published Friday, May 16, 2014 at 6:05 AM

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‘Jack of Spies’: a deck stacked against England before WWI

“Jack of Spies,” a promising new spy series by David Downing, follows the international adventures of Jack McColl, a British spy who lands in some of the world’s hot spots in the run-up to World War I. Downing signs books May 21 at Seattle Mystery Bookshop.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

David Downing

The author of “Jack of Spies” will sign books at noon Wednesday, May 21, at Seattle Mystery Bookshop, 117 Cherry St., Seattle (206-587-5737 or


David Downing isn’t as well known as some of his fellow espionage writers, which is a shame. In a perfect world, the British author would take his place among the best.

He writes gripping, well-paced plots, but what sets him apart from by-the-numbers thriller writers are his literary gifts: he’s smart and erudite, with a knack for fully-rounded characters and atmospheric but unfussy prose.

Case in point: “Jack of Spies” (Soho, 352 pp., $26.95).

In previous books, Downing has used WWII as a backdrop. (The author of many nonfiction books as well as novels, he’s best known for his “Station” series about John Russell, an Anglo-American journalist in Nazi Germany.) But here we’re in the volatile days preceding WWI.

It’s 1913, the British Empire is slowly collapsing, and threats to England’s domination are everywhere. In Europe, Germany is rattling sabers. In India, activists are fomenting rebellion against British rule.

And Irish militants, passionate to free their island, are waging guerrilla warfare. Adopting an attitude of “the-enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend,” these forces are sympathetic to each other’s causes.

Enter Jack McColl, a British salesman of luxury cars. In part because his world-spanning business is great cover, McColl’s government recruits him to collect intelligence on potential enemies. McColl’s adventures take him to China, Ireland, Mexico and both American coasts. (Blessed with a knack for languages, our man travels easily.)

His journeys give the book an episodic, broad-brush quality and let him witness several key events in history. These include a bloody confrontation in Dublin and the Tampico Incident, when German forces became involved in a conflict between the U.S. and Mexican rebels.

McColl is a fascinating figure. At first thrilled to be a glamorous spy, he grows increasingly unsure about the empire he’s helping to preserve. Another full-blooded character is Caitlin Hanley, an American journalist with radical leanings with whom he is deeply involved. She comes from a family of Irish rebels — will McColl’s activities betray her?

Despite the book’s overall serious nature, Downing has embedded several clever jokes. For example, McColl’s spy boss is named Cumming — perhaps a nod to Charles Cumming, a terrific but underrated espionage writer.

And there are several references (including the title) to Cumming’s “favorite spy,” Sidney Reilly. Reilly was a real historical figure, and an amazing one at that. A shadowy character known as the Ace of Spies, he operated under a wide variety of false names, selling information to anyone willing to pay.

Downing’s portrait of McColl evokes the spirit of Ashenden, the (fictional) amateur spy during the WWI era who stars in a series of classic short stories by W. Somerset Maugham.

Downing’s book is the first in a projected series. This will likely give the author a chance to explore McColl’s adventures in detail, rather than the globe-trotting, broad-brush techniques he uses here. In the meantime, “Jack of Spies” is a ripping good tale.

Adam Woog’s column on crime and mystery fiction appears on the second Sunday of the month in The Seattle Times.

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