SOHO Press Inc., $27.95, 338 pages, ISBN 978-1-61695-268-6
Those of us who follow the news and current events can’t help but feel at times that the world is ‘going to hell in a handbasket,’ to quote an old refrain . . . but those of us who study history know it’s all happened before, and the world’s still here, and still full of crisis. Case in point: In the first ten years of the twentieth century, three wars were fought . . . the Spanish-American in Cuba and the Philippines, the Boer War in South Africa between Britain and the Orange Free State, and the Mexican Civil War where tens of thousands lost their lives. And those were just the warm-ups, the undercard for the main event of the first quarter of that incredible century, because the Mac-Daddy of all wars was warming up on the sidelines.
World War I, the Great War, or The War To End All Wars as it was variously called, slaughtered tens of millions and has been the subject of innumerable books. But the years leading up to WWI, the events and causes of the cataclysm have pretty much been ignored until now.
Jack of Spies, by noted British novelist David Downing, is a tour de force of the sights and sounds and events leading up to the ‘guns of August,’ which heralded the beginning of the first-ever world-wide mechanized war. Mr. Downing does this by following the exploits of a Scottish world-hopping luxury automobile salesman named Jack McColl. He’s a full-time executive who’s traveling around the world, introducing wealthy buyers to the newest in automotive technology and British craftsmanship in the form of a hand-built Maia touring car. It’s the perfect cover for his other job . . . spying for the Royal Naval Admiralty on behalf of the British Empire and His Majesty the King.
The novel opens in the fall of 1913, and we meet Jack in Shanghai, China where he’s touting automobiles, scouting out the defenses of the German naval installations, and assessing their state of readiness in case the long-anticipated war in Europe starts up. The Germans have established military bases on the mainland of warlord-dominated, opium-addicted China, and they’re treating it as their own sovereign territory. Jack is part of a fledging British spy service. He’s pretty much on his own, without adequate funding or backup, operating by instinct, and reporting to a distant supervisor in London by telephone, telegraph and regular mail. As if that’s not enough, McColl becomes smitten with an Irish-American newspaper reporter named Caitlin Hanley whose brother Colm may be mixed up with the outlawed Irish Republican Army.
From there, the action and the impossible romance continue non-stop as McColl makes his way around the world, managing to hit nearly every trouble spot the world had to offer. Richly annotated with actual news and current events, this fast-paced and erudite novel will entertain, educate and delight all readers as it begins a new action-adventure series from a master story-teller and historian.