Jack McColl is hardly a spy master. He's a car salesman. But in 1913, as isolated events draw countries into global conflict, governments rely on private businessmen like McColl to gather intelligence in foreign countries.
And as much as he likes selling luxury automobiles to the world's elite, McColl thinks he might make a lucrative career unearthing secrets for Her Majesty's government.
"Spying, on the other hand, seemed an occupation with a promising future. Over the last few years, even the British had realized the need for an espionage service, and once the men holding the purse strings finally got past the shame of it all, they would realize that only a truly professional body would do."
So begins "Jack of Spies," David Downing's intricate and fabulously plotted thriller introducing readers to a fledgling spy and the birth of modern-day clandestine operations.
McColl, a 32-year-old Scotsman, is no James Bond. He can barely cover his expenses, which at the outset primarily amounts to paying brothel managers in Tsingtau, China, for information they can glean from German soldiers. He doesn't possess a killer instinct and is almost amused with himself when he talks his way out of a restricted German military base. McColl also is a romantic, much more interested in developing a relationship than disposing of women for pleasure.
As for martial skills? When he is attacked on the Shanghai waterfront, the blade is already buried in his gut by the time he sees it coming. McColl doesn't rush headlong into dangerous circumstances so much as reel from them.
That doesn't mean he isn't capable. McColl, like the spy game, is evolving. Intelligent and engaging, he has parlayed his job marketing the Maia automobile and an uncanny knack for languages to ferret out military and political secrets in far-flung regions of the world.
A former British soldier injured at the battle of Spion Kop in the second Boer War, McColl understands both the futility and inevitability of war. He has not traded idealism for cynicism.
As "Jack of Spies" opens, he breathlessly escapes German-controlled China with details of ship movements and gun placements in the Far East. However, neither McColl nor the reader can be sure how vital the information is — or if the threat of capture was even real.
This uncertainty is where Downing's literary genius lies. He's far more interested in developing the plot through character than the standard cat-and-mouse conventions of the genre. And the care Downing takes to make McColl believable turns "Jack of Spies" into a powerhouse of a series debut.
Downing is the author the acclaimed WWII "station" mystery series, six books so-named for train stations in Berlin and featuring American journalist John Russell. Those books, meticulously detailed and researched, feel as if they were merely a run-up to "Jack of Spies." Where Russell reluctantly wades into the spy game, McColl enthusiastically embraces his covert role, almost to his undoing.
Downing's rich and atmospheric style is often compared to historical spy writers Philip Kerr and Alan Furst, and justifiably so in the case of the "station" books. But "Jack of Spies" is something altogether new. Its sweep, scope and pacing is reminiscent of pulp serials or cliffhangers from a bygone era. The seriousness of the subject matter benefits from the episodic approach. Think "Raiders of the Lost Ark" as told by John le Carre.
The book is just damn fun. That's not to suggest it will appeal to most of the summer-beach crowd. It won't.
Downing weaves a complicated history lesson into "Jack of Spies" as McColl moves from Asia to the United States to Mexico and finally Ireland. The panoply of shifting geopolitical alliances on the eve of WWI becomes a character almost unto itself. There is much about this period that hasn't been written, and Downing is a happy revisionist.
Downing centers much of his plot around Germany's manipulation of nationalist movements worldwide, particularly Ireland, where the Irish Republican Army is fighting the British for Home Rule.
McColl's loyalties are tested after he falls for Caitlin Hanley, an Irish-American journalist and ardent supporter of women's suffrage. The relationship between McColl and Hanley allows Downing to provide a wide-range of social commentary on everything from voting rights to Chinese working conditions. Their dialogue serves to cut through history, giving the story a keen sense of immediacy.
"Jack of Spies" is another win for Soho Crime, an independent New York City publisher, which over the past 20 years has created a niche market for international crime writers. Soho's books are set in such locales as Australia, Brazil, China, Denmark, Ireland, Japan, Laos, Palestine and South Africa.
The books run the gamut from detective fiction, to police procedural to straight-up noir thrillers.
In McColl's case it's love, war and spies. What's not to like?
Details: 7 p.m., Tuesday, May 20. Poisoned Pen Bookstore, 4014 N. Goldwater Blvd., Scottsdale. Free to attend; $26.95 for the book. 480-947-2974, poisonedpen.com.