By David Downing

*** Now available in paperback! 

Publisher: Soho Crime (July, 2015)
Format: paperback
Price: $15.95
ISBN-13: 978-1616955366
Kindle edition: $ 9.61

SOHO Press, May 2014         ($27.95  US)
ISBN:  9781616952686
Format:  Hardback


Review by Larry Jung
(July 2014)


Jack McColl sells luxury cars and travels extensively to do so.  This makes him the perfect man to some amateur spy work for the British Admiralty.  As a patriotic Englishman, McColl can’t refuse.  Threats, actual and potential, to the British Empire are coming to a head by 1913 – 1914.  The greatest potential threat is from Germany and its battle fleet.  At home, activists for a free Ireland and independent India threaten the foundations of the Empire.  Spy work also appeals to McColl’s sense of adventure and romance.  It is quite a thrill to scope out German harbor defenses in Tsingtau and use prostitutes at the local Chinese brothel to discover what the German fleet’s battle plans will be in the Pacific if world war broke out.  McColl has become a little too smug that he has fooled the Germans until he is stabbed, then chased out of China.

From China, McColl’s next port is San Francisco in the United States.  Here his two brothers, also in the car business, are busy showing off the luxury car to potential buyers.  McColl is busy with a new assignment.  He is to watch the local Irish community for activities supporting Irish home rule.  McColl has fallen in love with suffragette and journalist Caitlin Hanley.  She is an Irish sympathizer, and McColl shamelessly uses her to spy on the activists for a free Ireland.  With a second attempt on McColl’s life, this time in his San Francisco hotel room, he is no longer under any illusion that the spy game is played by gentlemen rules.

McColl “…wondered if the Germans would persist in their efforts to kill him.  There seemed no reason they shouldn’t; spies weren’t like grouse – there was no official season for bumping them off.  The Germans could just keep trying until they succeeded, which was rather a chilling thought.”  (page 137)

By the end of JACK OF SPIES, Jack McColl has taken the reader to China, America, Mexico, London, and finally Dublin.  At times I felt the story was padded with names of streets and landmarks that didn’t add much to the story.  For me, Downing failed to convey the mystery and romance of foreign places.  I’m sure the author has done his homework and even been (and lived) in the locations in the story.  But with so many locations, I felt like I was on a tour bus looking out the window at the sights.  The plot, unlike the changes of scenery, moves with a deliberate pace, more John le Carré than Jack Higgins.  The book is not a page-turner, but it has its moments.  Sex and violence are PG-13.

* The above review is based on the hardcover edition.

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