During the pandemic–now in its third year–I have discovered some remarkable authors who have either been recommended by fellow book lovers, or ones I found while just searching for new books to enjoy. Alan Furst, David Liss, Olen Steinhauer, and James (do not ask why it took me so long to read) Michener are four examples.
But it is David Downing who has taken hold of my need for espionage and high drama with his two series of books. One dealing with the first World War featuring Jack McColl from Scotland, the other series centered on World War II with John Russell being center stage
I am about to start Lenin’s Roller Coaster–the third of four books based on WWI. There is no way to truly describe the thrill of these books.
First, is the worldwide epic nature which places McColl everywhere from China, India, and San Fransico. I have been taken on historic and raucous journeys from Irish freedom fighters seeking weapons from Germany to the monsoons in India where Germany is seeking upheaval so as to limit British soldiers on Europe’s Western Front.
It is 1913 at the beginning of Jack of Spies and a globe-trotting luxury automobile salesman named Jack McColl is putting his military background and ear for languages to work for the fledgling Royal Navy intelligence services. The world is on the brink of calamity, as the UK, Germany, and Europe inch closer to the First World War and Jack is about to find himself a player on the biggest of stages.
It starts out simple enough. While in China showing the spectacular bottle green Maya automobile to the wealth of empires, Jack takes strolls around the harbor to note the coming and going of ships, snaps the occasional photo, and even pays prostitutes to tell him the pillow talk of the German navy. The Royal Navy’s pay isn’t enough to retire on, but it is extra, and Jack is living out a lifelong fantasy as an agent of the British Empire.
The John Russell books are just as riveting. I will start Potsdam Station, the fourth of seven books set in 1945 later this winter.
He can see what is going on in Germany: Jews are being persecuted, and John’s own son is part of the Hitler Youth. Even his girlfriend, a German actress, is earning most of her money appearing in Nazi propaganda films. John finds himself with new opportunities when an old friend gives him the chance to write pro-Nazi articles for the Soviet newspaper Pravda. But then the American journalist living next door dies from a supposed suicide, and John is suspicious, since he knows his neighbor was investigating a potentially explosive story regarding Hitler’s government and the mysterious death of a number of disabled children. Suddenly, John finds himself questioning his actions, and whether he can merely remain the journalist who observes and chronicles life around him, or whether he must take action where he sees it is needed.
The reason I devour these books is two-fold. There is a real passion for history that flows off the printed pages. There is no doubt Downing has thought and studied the topics that he uses for the characters created to tell the story. Additionally, the detail-rich narratives allow readers to almost see the faces of the characters, read the signs (even though in German), hear the tram, smell the streets, and feel the beads of sweat as terror comes close.
There is a true sense of right and wrong, good and evil. But in the real world, there is also a need to not only see gray but operate with that reality in mind. When pushing his characters into those nuanced circumstances Downing excels as a writer.
The pandemic has been horrific for so many worldwide. There is no way to blunt that fact. But if there was a light of hope that kept poking through the darkness at this home for me it was the knowledge there was always a new author to explore, and then one to be totally taken in by book after book after book…..
Thank you, David Downing.
And so it goes.