Englishman John Russell is a member of the foreign press corps in Berlin and a first-hand witness to the brutal machinations of Hitler and the Nazi party in the build-up to war during the early months of 1939. Unlike many of his colleagues, Russell wishes to remain in Berlin for as long as possible to be close to his eleven-year-old son, who lives with his estranged German wife.
When an old acquaintance turns up at his lodging house, Russell's life begins to change. Gradually, he is persuaded by a combination of threats, financial need and appeals to his conscience to become a spy - first for the Soviet Union and then, simultaneously, for the British.
The grim streets, the constant fear and the skin-deep glitter of pre-war Berlin - with excursions to Prague, Danzig, London and the Baltic seashore - form a rich backdrop as Russell, a reluctant hero and a saviour for some, treads an ever narrowing line between the Russians, the British and the Gestapo.
Zoo Station was my second outing with David Downing and John Russell, his English journalist residing in pre-war Berlin. Wedding Station, the latest in the series was enjoyed earlier this year. Fortunately, that was written as a prequel and as a consequence didn't upset my OCD must-read-series-in-order self.
I think what I enjoy about these books is the fantastic sense of time and place and the tense tightrope the main character has to navigate. John Russell with his journalistic credentials, his English nationality and his veteran status with previous combat experience fighting against Germany in the First World War and his younger, now disowned Communist leanings has three/four strikes against his name with the German authorities. Any interaction, however trivial with the powers that be induces worry, concern and anxiety. Paranoid tendencies and a high sense of danger is a sensible state of mind in Berlin in the 30s.
Here Russell finds himself embroiled in trying to help a Jewish doctor and his family, while simultaneously spying for Moscow and by proxy the UK, by passing on German military secrets. Batting against one unscrupulous regime doesn’t make his current paymasters any more trusting or palatable. He doesn’t put his hand up to volunteer, it’s a more coercive arrangement which if survivable does have an upside. Namely money and a bit of influence towards helping his Jewish friends with visas.
It’s a tense, edge of the seat book, but not one which arrives where it’s going at a breakneck pace. There’s more a slow, subtle, creeping sense of menace which Downing expertly applies to the narrative. Can Russell trust his landlady? What happens if his apartment is searched? Would his former sister-in-law’s husband, a man who works for the Nazi regime cause him trouble? Is he watched when meeting his Russian contact? All of the little things accumulate and build up a sense of a society (hindsight notwithstanding) on the edge of a precipice.
Allied to the above, Russell endeavours to live a normal life. Football matches with his son and conducting a romance with his actress girlfriend. I think the everyday activities provide a counterweight to the turmoil bubbling along in the book.
Unsettling, educational, informative, exciting and totally satisfying. I look forward to savouring more in this series.
4.5 from 5
Read - September, 2021
Published - 2007
Page count - 320
Source - purchased copy
Format - trade paperback