Downing, author of the Station series, a WWII-era spy series that concluded with 2013’s Masaryk Station, launches a new WWI-era spy series with Jack of Spies (Soho Crime, May).
With Jack of Spies, you’ve left Berlin and also traded WWII for WWI. What inspired the change in setting and period?
I’ve always felt that the world I lived in for the first 40 years of my life was born in the trenches—that the loss of belief that seemed to begin there, and the rise of Communism which accompanied that loss, became the defining facts of the century. In the Station series, the characters were reaping the consequences of this, but in the new series I wanted to go back to where it began—to follow the dreams and despair of that earlier era through the lives of two people: a man who assumes that the future will be better, and a woman who thinks it can be, but only if she fights for it. As for the new locations, I wanted the man to be a British spy, and in those days the British were everywhere.
The character of the spy is a perpetually fascinating one. What made you create a hero like Jack McColl, who seems to walk the line between the civilian and intelligence worlds?
In the Station series, John Russell pretty much knows what he believes in from the beginning—the only real change is a deepening of his cynicism. I wanted Jack McColl to be someone who learns, who starts off seduced by the excitement of spying, and who only gradually becomes aware of the moral and political dimensions of what he is called to do, and how the world he lives in actually works. And having a relationship with reporter Caitlin Hanley will mean he always has to walk that line, because she’ll never let him turn off his conscience.
Both Jack McColl and your previous series character, John Russell, grow to have conflicted relationships with the “masters” they serve. How important was it for you to add this layer of conflict to the story?
This layer is absolutely crucial, particularly to McColl. Anyone working for the British government around this time, particularly in places like India and Ireland, would have to be blind not to feel any doubts about the essential rightness of the British cause.
Who are your literary inspirations in the espionage genre?
Eric Ambler was the original master of European spy noir, but in recent years Alan Furst has produced some outstanding books in that genre. At the moment I’m reading and enjoying Aly Monroe’s Peter Cotton series.
Did you ever have any aspirations to be a spy yourself?
I couldn’t have coped with the technology, let alone the people I’d have had to work for.