Highly trained superspy characters like Jason Bourne are thrilling because it feels like they can improvise their way out of any crisis. But novice spies are appealing because it feels like they can’t. Jack McColl, the British intelligence-gathering hero in David Downing’s Jack Of Spies, hails from the latter category. He’s a wandering automobile salesman and adventure-seeker who’s just learning to be a spy, which is all right, because so is everyone else. Set on the eve of the first World War, Jack Of Spies depicts the powers of the West as they begin to sketch the rules of modern spycraft—and of modern warfare.
That half-baked state of affairs lends a freewheeling feel to the book, intended as the first in a series of McColl stories. The fledgling spy flits between China, Mexico, San Francisco, New York, and other locales as he rather casually assembles evidence of international scheming against the U.K. There’s a sense throughout much of this journey that McColl might abandon the snooping life at any moment, but Downing renders this uncertainty as an earnest self-questioning rather than as a potentially off-putting aloofness. McColl often second-guesses his moves: When he suspects he’s being trailed by an assassin on a train platform, for instance, he wonders whether it’s better to blend in with the crowd or to seek open spaces where he can’t be so easily surprised. A self-assured superspy is a subject of awe; McColl is a subject of empathy. He’s a talented and cunning observer of people, but he’s human.
The author’s prose style—pragmatically efficient with a dry wit—is an ideal fit for McColl. It also suits the love interest, Caitlin Hanley, an Irish-American journalist with the passion of a reformer. Hanley is McColl’s intellectual match, and she’s less naïve in some respects. As they fall in love, she also complicates the intrigue for the hero, as her connections to Irish revolutionaries conflict with his service to king and country. But this is just one entanglement among many. As McColl travels the globe, Downing deftly depicts the complex prelude to World War I—a web of unrest that connects German coal-hoarding in China, anti-imperialist protests in India, and labor strife in New Jersey, among other seemingly disparate tensions.
This passion for historical detail is an asset for Jack Of Spies, as it makes a distant geopolitical moment come alive, yet it also contributes to the book’s slower portions. While McColl’s inexperience makes him an endearing twist on the spy archetype, it also means other characters can plausibly lecture him about the state of the world, and they do so a bit too often. About halfway through the novel, a noose dangles around both McColl and Britain, as the former refuses to decide between love and duty and the latter faces the end of its empire. Downing tightens this noose—Jack Of Spies is never in danger of going completely slack. He ramps up the action fitfully, though, sometimes pausing for one more history lesson even when a compelling stage has already been set. There’s a lesson here for the next McColl adventure: It’s fun to watch the novice spy learn his craft, but Jack Of Spies is at its best when he’s learning on the job.