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BWW Reviews: JACK OF SPIES Gets New Series Off To a Solid Start


Despite its title and its almost documentary feel for period spy-craft, David Downing's Jack of Spies isn't necessarily bound by genre. It's as much an old-fashioned adventure novel as a spy story and there's a dash of romance-with a left-leaning feminist heroine-as well. Add all that to a plain, sturdy prose style and Downing's new venture-the first book in a series designed to carry his hero, Jack McColl, through the Great War-calls John Buchan (who wrote in the period of the novel's setting) more readily to mind than John LeCarre.

Which is all to the good if you can manage it and I'm happy to say that Downing manages it far better than most.

His protagonist, a sort of quasi-official agent of the British government trying to sniff out world-wide connections between various factions opposed to the Empire (German, Indian, Irish), moves from China to San Francisco to Mexico to New York to Dublin to London. Downing has obviously done a world's worth of research. His descriptions of far-flung places a century gone feel sharp and authentic without getting bogged down in the grind of show-off details that tend to be the bane of modern historical fiction.

I don't think the novel entirely escapes formula and it's a bit slow out of the box-a lot of set-up and maybe a little too much exposition. Frankly, all the globe-hopping, while enjoyable in itself, keeps Downing from getting on with the action spy, adventure and period-historical fans are presumably there for until the final third of the novel. That feels a bit late in the game and, even then, it's not really pulse-pounding.

It is effective, though. I was tugged gently along for most of the way and the book never felt like a chore. And, while I haven't read Downing's previous series (regarding a similar set of adventures in World War II) and so am unfamiliar with his modus operandi, I suspect that much of what he has set up here will pay off in a brisker pace as the characters become more established and the war itself moves to center stage.

If, indeed, Jack of Spies, is mostly set-up, then I'm definitely looking forward to the payoff. Assuming this book's real strengths-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, but not so much it weighs the enterprise down-can be married to the stronger pace that emerges at this entry's very end and then sustained throughout, the series should be a keeper for anyone who wants to be carried back to that part of the past which has shaped the present perhaps more than any other. Not to mention those who simply appreciate a good yarn.

So while I can't say every element here worked-the romance is awfully standard, the sex scenes (while mercifully brief) are so by-the-book one wonders why the characters themselves, let alone their author, bothered and a more direct confrontation of some sort with a principal villain who is clearly being held for a future book would have been nice-I'm still very much looking forward to the second installment.

Heck, I might even start catching up with Downing's other series while I'm waiting.

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From This Author John Walker Ross

John Walker Ross is a graduate of Florida State and lives somewhere in the Florida Panhandle where he has variously toiled in advertising and legal (read more...)