Pros: A tightly written thriller set in 1939 Germany.
Cons: Some terms could have used a glossary. And what is the card game of skat?
In my quest to find new authors to enjoy, I've found one in author David Downing, who has written a series of tales set in the Germany of the Third Reich. Filled with plenty of details about the day-to-day lives of ordinary people, it's one that caught me at the opening pages and didn't let go until I was finished with the novel. And that, well, it usually doesn't happen with the usual espionage thriller.
Anglo-American journalist John Russell has a very unenviable life. He's surviving in a rather hand-to-mouth fashion doing freelance articles in Berlin, and as the year 1938 draws to a close, he's with other journalists in a seedy bar in Danzig, celebrating well, with not much cheer. Indeed, there isn't much cheer anywhere in Germany it seems.
He's there to wind up a story, and there comes a knock at his hotel room door, to a stranger named Shchepkin. And Shchepkin has a very lucrative offer for Russell -- all he has to do is spy on the Germans for the Russians, for which he will be compensated handsomely. Russell isn't too eager to take on the job, despite being a member of the Communist party in the past.
For one, he doesn't want to attract much notice in Germany, especially from the dreaded police forces. He has a young son, Paul, in the country, the only good thing to ever come out of his failed marriage. And despite Shchepkin's assurances, the offer sounds fishy indeed, but the money is too much of a lure to turn down.
So Russell starts his series of articles, looking at the lives of ordinary Germans, and quickly the money starts to come in, along with praise from his agent in London, who says that the stories are selling well. Unfortunately, they also attract the attention of the German officials. And when the English start to get involved in the mix, John Russell finds himself up to his neck in trouble.
Especially when a bright young American journalist named McKinley asks for Russell's help in translating a source. And this source is hiding a terrible, tragic secret about what is happening to the disabled in Germany...
I'm not going to reveal any more of the plot here, it's just too tight and too good to miss. This novel is full of little details, plenty of action, trains and trams hurtling through the night, and a sly, despairing humour that fits in perfectly in the time and place. As well as Shchepkin, there are other interesting characters to get to know and like, among them John's son Paul, a lively and smart ten-year-old, Effie, John's actress friend and mistress who's just as clever off the stage as well as on it, and a Jewish family that is trying desperately to get out of Germany, as well as the setting of the place.
Germany isn't at war -- yet -- but the streets are full of uniforms, there are already shortages and bodies keep turning up, usually clad in the story of a suicide or two. Downing keeps plenty of balls in the air and the story moving briskly along here, and gives plenty of little details and historical events to keep it interesting.
What made this different from every other WWII espionage novel is that the wit in here is blistering and sarcastic, along with some real tragedy to keep everything in balance. Russell is far from being the usual sort of hero; he's refreshingly ordinary and has to work to find his solutions, which kept this story from being too over the top. The book itself isn't very long, not much more than two hundred pages, and it makes for a quick evening read, which was nice after taking in some stories that are the size of bricks. Another aspect that saved this one for me is that the story is free of a great deal of jargon and technobabble which also helped.
Summing up, this is a novel that I heartily recommend to anyone interested in a good spy thriller, with plenty of fast-paced action and a hero that you can cheer for. Four stars overall, and I am looking forward to the next book in the series.
Novels by David Downing in this series
Zoo Station -- you are here
Potsdam Station -- forthcoming
2007; Soho Press, Inc.