Fresh Meat: Jack of Spies by David Downing

Jack of Spies by David Downing is the debut World War I espionage series introducing U.K. spy Jack McColl who travels the world uncovering secrets disguised as a traveling car salesman (available May 13, 2014).

Let’s face it: spying is easier with cell phones. And the Internet. Unfortunately, Jack McColl, the hero of spy writer David Downing’s new World War I-era series, lives in the telegram age. The Scottish car salesman and journeyman spy for the newly formed British Intelligence Service, Jack is tasked with being the eyes and ears of Her Majesty’s government abroad. While he’s hawking luxury cars in China (this is infinitely more exciting than hawking luxury cars in Glasgow), he’s also listening to the chatter about the Germans and their possible plans to start a war (which, spoiler, they do). Every time there’s a rumble in Shanghai—and the city is very rumble-y—Jack dutifully informs his handlers, who in turn pass it along to their boss, a shadowy figure called Cumming.

It’s hard to comprehend just how slowly information moved a century ago. There was actual suspense. Things known on one side of world weren’t immediately broadcast across the globe and back again, like an instantaneous game of telephone. Even telephones were a novelty. Jack and his lady love, the fiery American journalist Caitlin Hanley, spend a good portion of the novel separated in a way that’s nearly impossible in our age of constant, incessant communication. Not only does Jack not have his own telephone in his New York hotel room—there’s more spying to be done in the Big Apple and this time he’s got his sights set on Irish Republican sympathizers, like Caitlin’s family—but he’s perfectly content to wait for Caitlin’s call at a pre-arranged time. There’s no texting (where r u, Caitlin? It’s Jack!!) or tweeting. Instead, when Caitlin rings the hotel, she leaves a message with their proposed telephone rendezvous: “A Miss Hanley had rung and would do so again at 5:00 P.M.”

The Jack McColl of today might have whipped out his iPhone and immediately sent off a barrage of texts to this particular Miss Hanley, muddying a perfectly clear situation:

Do u want 2 talk now?

U can text me.

Hey, I’m around.

What r u doing? TTYL!


It’s not a given that Jack would sound like a love-struck teenager when texting. Though love does funny things to people. But an iPhone really would have been to Jack’s advantage in his professional, if not personal, endeavors. In addition to the speed at which he could send a warning to the cavalry back home that the Germans had launched, let’s say, a warship, there would also be the faux familiarity of social networking. Not to mention the online trail of information. This would have served Jack particularly well in his quest to ferret out intel on the Hanleys’ involvement in the Irish independence movement. There’d be no scrutinizing Caitlin’s little brother, Colm, and his friend Sean Tiernan (from “the old country”) for signs that they were planning to up and leave for Dublin to join the fight. All he’d have to do was check their Facebook pages and Twitter feeds (status update: Colm Hanley is “feckin’ excited to see all his Irish brothers TOMORROW! Erin go bragh! #Ireland #HomeRule”). This is all assuming that, in his modern-day variation, Jack wouldn’t have a whole team to constantly scour the Internet for him, or at least a technological mastermind like Bond’s Q to keep him up to date on all the latest spy inventions.

Jack—or his Scottish version of Q—would also be able to keep tabs on Caitlin and her radical tendencies. She’d surely be a furiously productive Twitter user, constantly updating her page with new links about ways everyone should be helping further the suffragette cause. It’s a given she’d have captured this moment for posterity and immediately posted it online (and not because it was the first time she met Jack):

The name, like the dark brown hair and green eyes, suggested Irish descent, and the New York accent had seemed softer than most [Jack] remembered, even when berating the local American consul at a diplomatic reception. Women deserve the vote more than men do,’ was the first thing he heard her say, and the patronizing chuckles that followed from the consul and his minions had been enough to make McColl intervene on her behalf. He had no strong opinion on the matter of suffrage, but he knew a bunch of reactionaries when he saw one. It was hard to imagine, he told the other men, that women would do a worse job of running the world.

And when Jack is first told exactly what he should do when it comes to Caitlin and her family—hint: it has nothing to do with love—it’s the epitome of Facebook’s “it’s complicated” relationship status:

“Look,” Fairholme said, “I’ll be blunt. I assume you realize that working for the Service and having a good time with this girl are very compatible pastimes. And that anything more than a good time would be completely out of the question. The only thing you have to ask yourself—because this is what Cumming will ask you—is how willing you are to use this relationship to serve your county.”

McColl could not smile at that. “To betray her, you mean.”

“Don’t be insulted,” Fairholme said quickly, raising a hand. “I’m trying to help. If you don’t feel you could do that, then drop her now, while you can.”

Armed with an iPhone of her own, Caitlin, with her insatiable curiosity and dogged tenacity, would surely have figured out exactly what Jack was doing. And then surreptitiously taken screen shots of his call log and text history. Ah, technology and love.

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Jordan Foster grew up in a mystery bookstore in Portland, Oregon. She has a MFA in Fiction Writing from Columbia University, which she’s slowly paying off as the managing editor for and by writing about crime fiction for Publishers Weekly. She’s back in Portland, where it’s nice and rainy and there are endless places to stash bodies. She tweets @jordanfoster13.

Read all of Jordan Foster’s posts for Criminal Element.

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