Saturday, May 24, 2014

Jack of Spies by David Downing *****

Jack McColl of Jack of Spies by David Downing is an agent for British intelligence during the run-up to World War I. The novel opens in China and moves to San Francisco and Dublin. This is a comprehensive pre-WWI historical novel covering the Chinese concessions, post-earthquake San Francisco, Irish home rule, and, of course, the start of WWI.

The history goes well beyond political history. Before Jack is hired as a spy, he sells a British luxury automobile and the narrative is full of observations on the transition from horses to cars and the impact on roads and infrastructure. Jack travels through America give him ample opportunities for comments on that culture compared to Britain, as when he purchases a gun and he is "provided with a cardboard box containing enough ammunition to mount a small war of his own."

There book also covers women's history much better that the history books of my youth. This includes the big issues of women's suffrage and Margaret Sanger's campaign for contraception. In addition other, more obscure, historical women are included, such as Miss Mattie Tyler, postmistress of Courtland, and Henriette Caillaux of France who shot a man to protect her husband's honor. During the US occupation of Vera Cruz (Tampico Affair), Jack remarks that "off-duty troop ... were posing a new threat ... a woman's right to say no." Overall, this is an excellent women's history of the period.

Jack is a delightfully naive and lucky spy who divides his time between fighting the Germans and courting Caitin Hanley, a journalist and supporter of women's cause, and Irish home rule. He is also a keen student of people in general.
Some men follow their hearts, and some go where their minds take them. Most of course just follow their ... Any one of the three can lead your to happiness, but only if you stick to that one alone.
This is a wonderful spy story and a comprehensive historical novel. A delightful read for the either one or the other or both.

One small complaint, Jack listens to the birds in Muir woods, but there are no birds in Muir woods. Redwood tree do not support insects, and from there on up, these forests are devoid of fauna and errily silent.

I won a copy of this book in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway on March 28, 2014. I received my copy on May 7, 2014.

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