Oline Cogdill

Our fascination with WWI should never end.

This so-called Great War was a game changer in so many ways in the way it restructured combat, politics and society.

I think our fascination has nothing to do with Downton Abbey, though that has increased some awareness, and everything to do how we view our history.

David Downing has explored the Second World War in his six excellent espionage novels about John Russell.

But now Downing turns his attention to the First World War in Jack of Spies (Soho), for which the British author will be touring the U.S. for the first time. Jack of Spies will be published on May 13.

Some of the best and most involving espionage novels aren’t about super-spys, the James Bonds, but about ordinary people caught up in circumstances beyond their control.

And that is what Downing does in Jack of Spies. Set in 1913, on the eve of WWI, the novel’s hero is Jack McColl, a Scottish luxury car salesman. McColl has a knack for languages and he served England during the Boer War. Being a globetrotting car salesman proves to be the perfect cover to gather some light intelligence for Great Britain.

But “light espionage” won’t cut it when the world is on the brink of disaster, when war—a horrific war—looms over the U.K., Germany and Europe.

Jack is kind of playing at being a spy, supplementing his Royal Navy pay with his sales commissions. He’s in China showing a magnificent bottle-green Maya automobile, strolling along the harbor and snapping photos and watching the movement of ships. He’s not above paying the occasional prostitute to tell what her German clients talk about.

But this is not the time to dabble in spy craft. And as the situation intensifies, Jack is pulled into the spy business. In addition to the politics that will result in WWI, Downing also fills Jack of Spies a look at Irish and Indian revolutionary causes that were shaping the political landscape.

Jack of Spies is set in Tsingtao, San Francisco, New York, Tampico and Dublin, on steamliners and cross-country trains, reflective of the time.

Jack of Spieshad received a lot of pre-publication buzz, and had been chosen by the American Booksellers Association (ABA) as its June IndieNextList, It’s also been picked as one of the Top Ten Mysteries & Thrillers Pick for Spring 2014 and is a Library Journal Editor’s Pick for Spring 2014.

While I post interviews on this blog that I have conducted, the Soho site has an interesting discussion with Downing about his new series and his thoughts on WWI and WWII.

Here are some excerpts from that interview:

On why Downing decided to write about WWI: “The Second World War was more horrendous than the First in many ways—most notably in the number of civilians killed—but I’ve always felt that the latter was more of game-changer, and I wanted to write a series that reflected the move away from conflicts between established nation states, and the increasing importance of the class, gender and colonial conflicts raging inside them.”

On Downing’s new hero: “I wanted a protagonist who would find these changes hard to cope with, but struggle to do so nevertheless. In the ‘Station’ series John Russell was always politically-motivated, and his views at the end have hardly changed at all, but in the new series British agent Jack McColl is more of a blank slate, politically speaking. The events he witnesses and the people he meets will confront him with many uncomfortable choices.

On the political landscape of the time, including the Irish Republican movement; the Indian independence movement; the Paterson strikes and workers’ rights; the Tampico Affair: “In 1914 there was no shortage of places where the British Empire was being threatened in one way or another. In Jack of Spies he turns up in China, the US, Mexico and Ireland, but it could have been any number of exotic destinations. And my female protagonist, Caitlin, a radical New York journalist, would have been all too aware of the Paterson strike and its aftermath in 1913-14.”