Wednesday, September 4, 2013

How John Russel Became a Spy -- Zoo Station by David Downing

Berlin, 1939.  English journalist John Russell is determined to stay in Berlin in spite of his hatred for fascism in general and for the Nazi Party in particular.  While he knows Germany is headed for dark days, certainly for war, he is tied to the country by his 10-year-old son Paul, the product of a failed marriage to a German women, and by his girlfriend Effe Koenen a would-be film star.

Russell survives on the odd bit of free-lancing and occasional jobs tutoring English, but all around him the world is preparing to come apart at the seems.  When a Soviet publication approaches him asking for regular articles about ordinary Germans, Russell takes the job although he knows his work will just be a cog in the communist propaganda machine, a machine which is now trying to convince ordinary Russians that they should make piece with the Germans whom they were just yesterday preparing to go to war against.

Once Russell's own country gets word of what he is doing, they insist he first pass whatever he writes to British intelligence before sending it on to the Soviets.  Eventually, even the Americans are after him.  Everyone wants to know what everyone else thinks.

Eventually, it becomes clear to Russell that he can use his position to make his own demands.

What Russell wants is to get one Jewish family, friends of his, the papers they need to leave Germany forever before it's too late.

Zoo Station does not start out as a spy novel.  At first, John Russell is going about his business, investigating what he can discover about the Third Reich, especially their plans for disposing of "mentally defective" children.  While Russell is never able to do much with the information he finds, this plot line is not simply a McGuffin for what follows.  It's a way into the story, its setting and its cast of characters.  Since Zoo Station is the first in the series, the book that establishes how and why John Russell became a spy, the reader needs to know him well enough to understand how he comes to be involved with espionage.

Even the first, pre-spy, section of the book makes for good reading, though the page-turner section doesn't start going full-bore until towards the end.  That the entire novel is full of pre-cold war atmosphere doesn't hurt either, as far as I'm concerned.  I confess that I simply enjoyed reading about a man who lived on Neuenburgerstrasse because David Bowie mentions sitting in a cafe there in his new song Where Are We Now.  I'm shallow that way.

I'm also very pleased to find a new series.  After finishing Michael Nava's Henry Rios crime novels, I was feeling somewhat at a loss.  I've come to enjoy having a series of books that I'm working my way through but it's not easy for me to find a series i like.

There are six John Russell novels so far.   Mr. Downing may even write a few more.



Sandy Nawrot said...

I do love it when I discover new series...this one has potential. But seriously there are so many out there. Have you tried the Mo Hayder series featuring Jack Caffrey? They are INTENSE.

Teresa said...

I really don't need to know about a new series. I have so many already on my plate or my TBR, but this one does sound good.

Anonymous said...

There's nothing I enjoy more than a good spy novel - even if half of it is not spy. This one has been in my pile for a while, I'm glad to hear it's a good read.