David Downing has earned a following with his World War II-set espionage adventures featuring John Russell. With his latest, Jack Of Spies, he’s switched his attention to the First World War with Scottish car salesman and secret agent Jack McColl. To warm up for our in-store discussion on Sunday, May 18th at 4PM, we caught up with the author himself.
MYSTERYPEOPLE: This book has a less somber feel than the Russell books, with a more devil-may-care hero (at least at the beginning). Were you looking forward to creating a somewhat lighter tone?
DAVID DOWNING: Not at all. I hope Jack of Spies works as an exciting story in its own right, but it’s also meant to function as a scene-setter for the whole series. If there is a less somber feel, it’s very much the calm before the storm. The horrors of the trenches and a world-changing upheaval in Russia are only just around the corner.
MP: There is a lot of globetrotting in Jack of Spies. What did you want to convey about that time, during the period?
DD: Mostly the fact that the European powers still controlled, either politically or economically, most of the rest of the world, and that a war between them was bound to have repercussions almost everywhere. And tied in with that, the obvious fact that those fighting their colonial overlords were bound to see the war as an opportunity to push their own causes. As the saying had it, ‘England’s trouble was Ireland’s opportunity’.
MP: What was your favorite city to write about?
DD: Shanghai, I think. In 1914 it was a wonderfully exotic mix of medieval and modern.
MP: One of the biggest differences between Jack McColl and John Russell is that Jack wants to be a spy. What drives him to this call of duty?
DD: Partly a yearning for excitement, partly plain naivety. And, at the beginning, a sense that he’s fighting for the right side. He’s not guided by patriotism, so when he begins to doubt that there is a right side, things start getting complicated.
MP: Caitlin, Jack’s love interest, could carry her own book. How did you come about her as a character?
DD: I’m fascinated by the early 20th century feminists, by the American left around this time, by the Bolshevik approach to women’s rights, and by the Irish struggle for independence. These are the multiple contexts for Caitlin, which allow her to act as Jack’s foil, and sometimes his conscience. She’s brighter than he is, and much more certain of her role in the world. In succeeding books she’ll be sharing the spotlight on an equal basis.
MP: After dealing with both of them in fiction, what is the biggest difference between the two World Wars?
DD: There are several huge differences. The First was a revelation, the Second mere confirmation. The First was all about being stuck, the Second all about movement. The First was fought by soldiers on battlefields, the Second almost everywhere, by soldiers and civilians alike. The First achieved absolutely nothing, the Second at least got rid of the gangsters then ruling Germany. The Second contained the more obvious crimes against humanity, but I think the First had a deeper impact on how we think and feel about the way we live.