BOOK REVIEW: ‘Jack of Spies’

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JACK OF SPIES
By David Downing
Soho Crime, $27.95, 352 pages

WITHOUT WARNING
By David Rosenfelt
Minotaur, $25.99, 304 pages

The thunder of bombs falling on Berlin in the last days of World War II echoed through David Downing’s previous books and made them quite memorable.

Unfortunately, “Jack of Spies,” his latest mystery, does not live up to his formidable reputation for writing what became a grim and realistic report on world history. His new book tracks back to 1913 and the beginning of what was a terrible era, but it carries none of the impact of what became known as his “Station” series, which was set in Germany at the worst time in its dark history.

The dominant figure is Jack McColl, an automobile salesman when he is not a British agent, who travels the world and tangles with problems in China and London as well as New York, as the elements of World War I coalesce. He also gets himself involved in the never-ending hostility between Ireland and England by falling in love with a pretty Irish female reporter whose family is deeply involved to the point that they apparently would sooner deal with the Germans than the British. There are explosions of violence as might be expected, and McColl survives them all with surprising success. He clearly is set on a career in the British intelligence service and, equally clearly, he cannot confide this to the strong-minded Caitlin Hanley, who comes to consider him a traitor to every cause she believes in, from early feminism to the kind of war that she cannot visualize.

The trouble is that the plot lacks tension. What is about to turn Europe upside down and send millions of men on both sides to their deaths is only about to happen. Which means that McColl exists on the edge of global disaster, not in the midst of it, as he did in his previous books. Presumably, once hostilities break out, the level of drama will rise, yet this is like reading a prologue to a more interesting volume.

You might call David Rosenfelt’s “Without Warning” a different kind of massacre. In the small Maine town of Wilton where corpses stack up like firewood in Mr. Rosenfelt’s latest gallop of a thriller, the book is not only drenched in murder, but has a hint of a nuclear disaster as a climax.

The author has a crisp, often sardonic style that lends itself to the kind of book where killings abound and the reader is unlikely to put it down until he reaches the denouement and finds out whether his guess about the murderer is correct. The plot is based on the opening of a local time capsule, and it gets off to a lively start when a skeleton is discovered sitting on it. Inside the capsule is a series of threatening letters. This is especially unsettling for Jake Robbins, the chief of police, whose life already has been marred by the murder of his wife Jenny, allegedly killed by her lover who meets his own death in jail.

There is a breathless quality to the plot, partly because of the brevity of the chapters and the awareness that there is another corpse right around the corner. Mr. Rosenfelt provides a nice touch by having a local reporter chronicle the deaths by following the sinister warnings of catastrophe to come, and he drops enough hints about the killer to produce a small trail of red herrings, while showing off his investigative skills and indulging in a lively love affair with the newspaper’s editor.

She is the widow of the man who killed Robbins’ wife, so there is enough psychological baggage to clutter their relationship.

The author is a master of the slam-bang mystery style, and all that is missing is a dog. It should be kept in mind that Mr. Rosenfelt in private life operates a rescue service for lost and wounded golden retrievers, and this may be his first book that has not featured one of them, usually a canine goddess called Tara, as either a character or a clue. Those who have read Mr. Rosenfelt before may find that they miss a four-footed presence in the gore.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and The Baltimore Sun.

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