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"Downing is a master at work."
—Huffington Post UK
"Powerfully and skillfully written, with constant suspense and sudden surprises of satisfaction, Lehrter Station is one of the vital 2012 books that I'd pack for a desert island—or a beach vacation, or a rainy weekend."
Praise for the John Russell series
"Epic in scope, Mr. Downing's "Station" cycle creates a fictional universe rich with a historian's expertise but rendered with literary style and heart."
—The Wall Street Journal
"John Russell has always been in the thick of things in David Downing’s powerful historical novels set largely in Berlin ... Downing provides no platform for debate in this unsentimental novel, leaving his hero to ponder the ethics of his pragmatic choices while surveying the ground level horrors to be seen in Berlin.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“Reminiscent of Woody Allen’s Zelig, Russell, the hero of Downing’s espionage series, can’t seem to resist inserting himself into climactic moments of the 20th century ... Downing has been classed in the elite company of literary spy masters Alan Furst and Philip Kerr ... that flattering comparison is generally justified. If Downing is light on character study, he’s brilliant at evoking even the smallest details of wartime Berlin on its last legs.... Given the limited cast of characters, Downing must draw on almost Dickensian reserves of coincidences and close calls to sustain the suspense of his basic hide-and-seek story line. That he does ingeniously. It helps to read Downing’s novels in order, but if Potsdam Station is your first foray into Russell’s escapades, be forewarned that you may soon feel compelled to undertake a literary reconnaissance mission to retrieve and read the earlier books.”
“The echo of the Allied bombings and the crash of the boots of the invading Russians permeate the pages in which David Downing vividly does justice to the drama... The book is a reminder of what happened and those who allowed it to happen...The book lives up to the others in the Russell series, serving as yet one more reminder of a world too many have entirely forgotten.”
“Downing is brilliant at weaving history and fiction, and this plot, with its twists and turns—all under the terrible bombardment of Berlin and the Third Reich’s death throes—is as suspenseful as they come. The end, with another twist, is equally clever and unexpected.”
—Toronto Globe and Mail
From the Hardcover edition.
The Men From Moscow
John Russell reached across and rubbed the tea shop window with his sleeve to get a better view of what was happening on the pavement outside. A middle-aged man in uniform was hectoring two boys of around twelve, jabbing his finger at first one and then the other to emphasise his indignation. The boys wore suitably downcast expressions, but one was still clutching a fearsome-looking catapult behind his back. Once the adult had run out of useful advice and stalked haughtily away, the two youngsters raced off in the opposite direction, giggling fit to bust. Russell somehow doubted that they had seen the error of their ways.
He took another sip of the still-scalding tea, and went back to his News Chronicle. Like most of the newspapers, it was filled with evidence of Britain’s newly split personality. While half the writers explored, with varying degrees of eagerness, the socialist future promised by the new Labour government, the other half was busily lamenting those myriad challenges to Empire that the war’s end had conjured into being. Palestine, Java, India, Egypt... the outbreaks of violent disaffection seemed never-ending, and thoroughly inconvenient.
The British press, like the British public, might want a new world at home, but they were in no mood to relinquish the old one abroad.
The sports page was still full of the Moscow Dynamo tour,
which had begun so inauspiciously the previous weekend. A
fellow-journalist had told Russell the story of the Football Association reception committee’s dash to Croydon Airport, and the subsequent rush back across London when it transpired that the Russians’
plane was about to land at Northolt. The FA’s choice of Wellington
Barracks as a hotel had gone down badly with the tourists, particularly when their arrival coincided with the drilling of a punishment detail. Several of the Soviet players had concluded that they were being imprisoned, and had refused to leave their bus. It seemed as if things had improved since then—yesterday the visitors had been taken to the White City dog-track, where only the Magic Eye photo machine had denied them a rouble-earning win.
Russell looked at his watch—as usual, Effi was late. Clearing a new patch in the condensation he could see the queue outside the cinema already receding up Park Street. He gulped down the rest of his tea and went to join it, hurrying to beat the crowd pouring off a pair of trolleybuses. The visibility on Camden High Street was worse than it had been twenty minutes earlier, and the air seemed twice as cold and damp.
Several people in the queue were stamping their feet and clapping their hands, but most seemed in surprisingly high spirits. Only six months had passed since the end of the war in Europe, and perhaps the novelty of peace had not quite worn off. Or maybe they were just happy to be out of their overcrowded houses. Russell hoped they weren’t expecting an uplift from the film they were about to see, which the same journalist friend had warned him was a sure-fire wrist-slitter. But then Effi had chosen it, and it was her turn. She still hadn’t forgiven him for West of the Pecos.
The queue was beginning to move. He looked at his watch again,
and felt the first stirrings of anxiety—Effi’s English was improving,
but still a long way from fluent, and frustration always seemed to render her German accent even more pronounced. Locals with grudges had no way of knowing that she was a heroine of the anti-
He was almost at the door when she appeared at his side. ‘The trolleybus broke down,’ she explained in German, leaving Russell conscious of the sudden silence around them.
She noticed it too. ‘I have to walk half way,’ she added in English.
‘How is your day?’ she asked, taking his arm.
‘Not so bad,’ he said, with what had lately become his usual lack of candour. Was she just as reluctant to share her worries with him,
he wondered. When they had found each other again in April, after more than three years apart, everything had seemed just like before,
but slowly, over the succeeding weeks and months, a gap had opened up. Not a large one, but a gap all the same. He was often aware of it, and knew that she was too. But try to talk about it, as they had on several occasions, and all they ended up doing was re-state the problem.
‘Solly has a couple of ideas he’s looking into,’ he told her, forbearing to add that his agent had seemed even less hopeful than usual.
Since the San Francisco Chronicle had dispensed with his services in
May, Russell had returned to freelancing, but pieces sold had been few and far between, and he sometimes wondered whether he was on some unknown blacklist. He had done enough to warrant inclusion on such a list, but as far as he knew no one else was aware of that fact.
And money was decidedly short, he thought, counting out the three shillings and sixpence for their tickets. Effi and her sister Zarah were earning a little from their needlework, but Paul’s job with Solly was their only regular source of income. It was all a far cry from their affluent life in pre-war Germany.
They found two seats in the centre of the back stalls and watched the auditorium slowly fill. For Effi, such moments always brought back memories of her years alone in Berlin, when a darkened cinema was the only place she could meet with her sister. And she was also reminded of evenings with Russell, watching herself up there on the screen, back when she’d been a famous actress. It seemed several lifetimes ago, but lately she’d found herself missing the stage, and wondering if she would ever act again. Not here, of course, not with her English, but back in Germany? Several theatres had already re-opened in Berlin, and sooner or later her country would start making films again.
It would probably be later, she thought, as the Pathé News camera panned across the ruins of her home town. The streets seemed clearer than they had in April, but nothing much else seemed changed.
There were no signs of new construction, only military jeeps and haggard-looking women weaving their way through a maze of perforated masonry. British servicemen looked up from their lunches to grin at the camera, but she doubted whether the locals were eating so well.
The ‘B’ movie had London policemen successfully rounding up a gang of black market spivs, something they seemed incapable of doing in real life. Russell missed the name of the film being trailed,
but it involved a man and a woman sharing meaningful expressions in a railway station buffet, and looked likely to end in tears. Another wrist-slitter.
Effi’s choice of main feature proved a good one, well-written, wellacted and very atmospheric. Russell found the masculinity of the leading actress somewhat off-putting, but the California-by-night setting was wonderfully evocative, the storyline taut and involving.
And something was definitely being said between the lines about a woman’s place in the post-war world.
When they finally emerged from the cinema the fog had grown much thicker. They crossed Camden High Street and walked arm in arm past a crowded pub—the beer shortage was clearly less severe than advertised. The interior looked as murky as the streets, blue cigarette smoke merging with greyish fog in the light from the nearest lamppost.
‘So how was your day?’ Russell asked.
‘Good. Rosa had a good day at school. And Zarah had another flirt with the man downstairs.’
They were speaking German now, which won them curious looks from a couple walking in the other direction.
‘And you?’ Russell asked.
‘Oh, I queued for bread, made dinner for everyone. I read this afternoon—three whole pages of Great Expectations. But I’m still looking up one word in three, or that’s what it seems like. I was never any good at languages.’
‘I doubt it. But...’ Her voice trailed away... ‘So what did you think of Mildred Pierce?’
‘I liked it, I think.’
‘I was never bored. It looked good. Though the daughter did seem a bit over the top—would any mother be that blind?’
‘Of course. I’ve known mothers who’ve put up with much worse.
No, it wasn’t that...’ She paused. They had reached the bus stop on
College Street, and a trolleybus was already looming out of the fog. It was crowded with over-exuberant West End revellers, and continuing their conversation in German seemed ill-advised. Effi spent the five-minute bus journey trying to sort out her reaction to the film.
The dominant emotion, she decided, was anger, but she wasn’t at all sure why.
After alighting on Highgate Road she said as much to Russell.
‘The portrayal of women,’ he guessed. ‘Though the men were just as appalling. The only sympathetic character was the younger sister,
and they killed her off.’
‘There was also the friend, but she was too smart to attract a good man.’
The fog seemed thicker than ever, but perhaps it was the added smoke from the nearby engine sheds.
‘But you’re right,’ Effi went on, as they turned into Lady Somerset
Road, ‘it was the way the women were written. When the Nazis were portraying them as submissive idiots, it was so wonderful to see someone like Katherine Hepburn show how happy and sexy independent women could be. And now the Nazis are gone, and Hollywood gives us Mildred, who can only have a successful career if she fails as a mother and husband. Goebbels would have loved it.’
‘A bit harsh,’ Russell murmured.
‘Not at all,’ she rounded on him. ‘You just...’
Two figures suddenly emerged in front of them, silhouettes in the mist. ‘Stick ’em up,’ one of the two said, in a tone that seemed borrowed from an American gangster movie.
‘What?’ was Russell’s first reaction. The voice sounded young, and both potential robbers seemed unusually short. But it did look like a real gun pointing at them. A Luger, if Russell was not mistaken.
‘Stick ’em up,’ the voice repeated petulantly. The faces were becoming clearer now—and they belonged to boys, not men. Fourteen perhaps, maybe even younger. The one on the left was wearing trousers too long for his legs. A relation who hadn’t come home.
‘What do you want?’ Russell asked, with what felt like remarkable good humour, given the situation. Only that morning he’d read about two thirteen year-olds holding up a woman in Highgate. Far too many boys had lost their fathers.
‘Your money of course,’ the second boy said, almost apologetically.
‘We only have a couple of shillings.’
‘You Germans are all liars,’ the first boy said angrily.
‘I’m English,’ Russell patiently explained, as he reached inside his coat pocket for the coins in question. He doubted the gun was even loaded, but it didn’t seem worth the risk to find out.
Effi had other ideas. ‘This is ridiculous,’ she muttered in German,
as she stepped forward and twisted the gun out of the surprised youth’s hand. ‘Now go home,’ she told them in English.
They glanced at each other, and bolted off into the fog.
Effi just stood there, amazed at what she’d done. She was, she realised, shaking like a leaf. What mad instinct had made her do such a thing?
‘Christ almighty,’ Russell exclaimed, reaching out for her. ‘For a moment there...’
‘I didn’t think,’ she said stupidly. She started to laugh, but there was no humour in the sound, and Russell cradled her head against his shoulder. They stood there for a while, until Effi disentangled herself and offered him the gun.
He put it in his coat pocket. ‘I’ll hand it in at the police station tomorrow morning.’
They walked the short distance home, and let themselves in to the ground floor flat that Russell had rented. It had two large rooms, a small kitchen and an outside toilet. Russell, Effi and Rosa shared the back room, Paul, Lothar and Zarah the curtain-divided room at the front. Other families of four and five lived above and below them.
Paul was reading a book on architecture in the kitchen, his English dictionary propped up beside him. ‘They’re all asleep,’ he told them quietly.
Effi went to check on Rosa, the young Jewish orphan who had been her ward since April. Though perhaps not an orphan, as Effi reminded herself. The father Otto had disappeared around 1941,
and not been seen or heard of since. He was probably dead, but there was no way of knowing for sure. Effi thought the uncertainty worried Rosa—it certainly worried her.
Sitting down on the side of the bed, she could smell the Vick’s
VapoRub which Zarah had put on the girl’s chest. Effi pulled the blanket up around her neck, and told herself that Rosa was coping better than most with the post-war world. She was doing well at the school which Solly had found for them. Despite there being many other refugee pupils, the instruction was wholly in English, and
Rosa’s command of that language was already better than Effi’s own.
And Solly seemed more excited by her Berlin drawings than by any of John’s ideas. The girl would end up supporting them both.
In the kitchen, Russell was telling his son about the attempted hold-up. Paul’s smile vanished when he realised his father wasn’t having him on. ‘Was the gun loaded?’ he asked.
‘I haven’t looked,’ Russell admitted, and pulled it from his pocket.
‘It was,’ he discovered. ‘I’ll put it out of harm’s way,’ he added, reaching up to place it on the highest shelf. ‘Anything interesting happen at work?’
‘Not really,’ Paul said, getting up. ‘It’s time I went to bed,’ he explained. ‘Another early start.’
‘Of course,’ Russell said automatically. His son didn’t want to talk to him, which was neither unusual nor intended personally: Paul didn’t want to talk to anybody. But he seemed to be functioning like a normal human being—only that lunchtime Solly had confided how pleased he was with the boy—and Russell knew from experience what havoc war could wreak on minds of any age. ‘Sleep well,’
‘I hope so,’ Paul said. ‘For everyone’s sake,’ he added wryly—his nightmares sometimes woke the whole house. ‘Oh, I forgot,’ he added,
stopping in the doorway. ‘There was a letter for you. It’s on your bed.’
‘I’ve got it,’ Effi said, squeezing past him. She gave Paul a goodnight hug before handing the envelope over to Russell.
He tore it open, and extracted the contents—a short handwritten note and a grandstand ticket for the following Tuesday’s match between Chelsea and the Moscow Dynamo tourists. ‘Your attendance is expected,’ the note informed him. It was signed by Yevgeny
Shchepkin, his erstwhile guardian angel in Stalin’s NKVD.
‘So the bill has finally arrived,’ Effi said, reading it over his shoulder.
Lying beside her half an hour later, Russell felt strangely pleased that it had. In May he had bought his family’s safety from the Soviets with atomic secrets and vague promises of future service, and he had always known that one day they would demand payment on the
Faustian bargain. For months he had dreaded that day, but now that it was here, he felt almost relieved.
It wasn’t just an end to the suspense. The war in Europe had been over for six months, and the Nazis, who had dominated their lives for a dozen years, were passing into history, but all their lives—his and Effi’s in particular—had still seemed stuck in some sort of postwar limbo, the door to their future still locked by their particular past. And Shchepkin’s invitation might—might—be the key that would open it.
Posted July 23, 2012
Five months after the fall of Berlin, this chronicle of the adventures of John Russell, the Anglo-American journalist, and his paramour, Efffi Koene, the actress, continues. Four previous “Station” novels carried them through the pre-war years in Berlin to Russell’s escape to England. Now, his former Russian spymaster sort of blackmails him into returning to Berlin as a spy for both the Reds and the Americans. To sugarcoat the request, Effi is offered a starring role in a soon-to-be-made motion picture.
The couple return to a devastated city, where the only rate of exchange seems to be cigarettes and sex. No food, housing or other essentials, but a thriving black market. The story continues with the history of the immediate post-war, including the beginnings of the Cold War and the plight of surviving Jews, with the British reluctance to allow emigration to Palestine and the Zionists’ attempt to get around the roadblocks.
The series is more than just run-of-the-mill espionage stories, but a reflection of the time and people in an era of mass murder and terrible war and its aftermath. The descriptions of the rubble that was Berlin after the Allied bombings and the Russian rape (it is said that there were as many as 80,000) is terrifying. And the depiction of the duplicity of the U.S. and Soviet intelligence agencies is despicable, especially when they overlooked Nazi backgrounds when they served a purpose. Presumably, there is room for a new effort in the series, and we look forward to it.
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Excellent series with characters who woo you and pull you from page to page. I'm really happy I stumbled across David Downing's well paced novels.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
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Very good addition to intriguing series about coping and survival in Germany during the Third Reich and the War. Good development of characters and exciting plotting makes for quick, fast -paced read that satisfies.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
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