Review of “Jack of Spies” by David Downing

Jack McColl, 32, is a Scot working as a spy for the British Government in 1913, a time when Britain had plenty to worry about: there was unrest in its colonies of Ireland and India, and the possibility of a European or even worldwide war was looming on the horizon.


Jack’s latest mission of infiltrating Irish rebels and thwarting their plans is complicated by his attraction to Caitlin Hanley. Although she is an American, some of her family members are active Irish Republicans. McColl likes the job of espionage: it enables him to take advantage of his facility with languages, and he enjoys the danger and excitement. Too, he wants to make a difference with his life. But as his feelings for Caitlin grow, he knows his choice of career will probably come between them if she finds out the truth.

Discussion: This story is set against a promising background. First, it takes place at a time when there was no official “spy agency” of the British Government, and intelligence work was done by “free-lancers.” In addition, 1913 was certainly one of the most eventful times historically in the 20th Century. But herein lies the trap the author sets for himself: his apparent desire to convey the complex and momentous history of the time puts the story itself at a lower priority. Thus, much of the writing and pacing is pedestrian and didactic.

Also, McColl is a little too knowledgeable about everything that is going on, evincing a very sophisticated 21st Century interpretation of events leading up to World War I, a perspective unlikely to be shared by someone from that time and with his limited knowledge.

Caitlin, a suffragette and socialist, provides a way for the author to bruit the most politically correct views on just about everything imaginable. Caitlin’s conversations with Jack seem geared to allow the author to make sociopolitical points rather than to establish some sort of chemistry between the two. It is definitely possible to accomplish both goals: Jennifer Donnelly, for example, excels at this in The Winter Rose (see my review here). But I didn’t feel this author was adept at integrating politics into the narrative.

Finally, sometimes the triteness of the prose (combined with the author’s love of Baedeker-ism) is eye-rolling:

“After breakfast on Saturday, he took the subway down to City Hall and the el from Park Row across the Brooklyn Bridge to the other Fifth Avenue. She was waiting at the Sixteenth Street exit, looking as gorgeous as ever and drawing admiring glances from every male who passed her.”

Evaluation: The writing is a bit ponderous and often uninspired. To my thinking, the author wants too much to convey the history of the time, to the detriment of his telling a good story. He also seems bent on proving that he could reconstruct every street of every place in 1913 where the protagonist traveled.

The author is a best-seller, and other reviewers liked this book, but I found it more tedious than compelling.

Rating: 2.5/5

Published by Soho Press, 2014


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5 Responses to Review of “Jack of Spies” by David Downing

  1. BermudaOnion says:

    That’s how I feel about most historical fiction – there’s too much focus on the time period and not enough focus on the plot. I’ll probably skip this book.

  2. Just from that small snippet I can tell I wouldn’t enjoy that book!

  3. Jenny says:

    Pooh, disappointing. I was thinking that the setting sounded great, and I also think Soho Press is fantastic. Oh well.

  4. I’m currently reading his Berlin series and quite enjoying it. He does set up a cast of characters with more insider knowledge than most people would have, and he does make sure his characters will be able to provide many avenues into history. But it all works very well, at least in the first two of the Berlin books I’ve read so far.

    I have not read this one.

  5. stacybuckeye says:

    You don’t think knowing wach street the actor traveled on is compelling? Maye this says more about you that the author. And, obviously, I mean that in the best way.

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