Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Lehrter Station

Unbeknownst to me when I began reading David Downing’s new novel, Lehrter Station is actually the fifth book in a series of World War II novels featuring spy-of-all-trades, and British journalist, John Russell.  Much of what happened to Russell and those closest to him in previous books is unobtrusively recapped here, however, meaning that Lehrter Station works well as a standalone.  Many readers new to the John Russell character, me among them, will want to go back and read the earlier books in the series even if they begin with this one.

Having successfully bought his way out of Berlin just a few months earlier, Russell now lives in London as 1945 draws to a close.  He shares a cramped flat there with Paul, his grown son; Effi, his German girlfriend; Rosa, the little German war orphan they are caring for; Zarah, Effi’s sister; and Lothar, Zarah’s young son.  Although John Russell hopes to begin a new life with his makeshift family, he knows the odds are stacked against him.  He is a man with a cloudy past, and he owes his escape to London to a deal he made with the devil – and now the devil wants to be paid for his services.

Russell delivered German atomic research secrets (with promises of continuing cooperation after the war) to the Soviets in exchange for his family’s safe passage out of Berlin.  Now, forced to return to Berlin by the NKVD, Russell and Effi find the occupied city to be every bit as dangerous for them as it had been during the war.  Russell, who has convinced both the Russians and the Americans that he is spying on their behalf, will have to keep both sides happy if he and Effi are to survive.  Then, when his snooping inadvertently threatens to expose a former German army officer’s new role, Russell’s life becomes even more complicated.

David Downing
Lehrter Station, though, is much more than a “spy novel.”  It is an interesting piece of historical fiction that vividly portrays life in post-war Berlin as its American, French, British, and Soviet occupiers begin to settle in to the four zones into which they carved Berlin.  Thousands of displaced citizens are flooding the city only to learn that their former homes no longer exist or that other refugees have been placed in them.  Their scramble for shelter is worsened by all the others who join the returning Berliners because their own homes are now outside the newly-drawn German borders.  The streets are still filled with bomb rubble, public utilities are unpredictable, and the currency of choice seems to be the American cigarette.  The country’s legitimate economy has been replaced by a cutthroat black market one already infiltrated by former German army officers – under new identities – and used by scores of occupying soldiers for personal profit. 

In the midst of this chaos, John and Effi search for word of missing friends and relatives while John tries to negotiate the complications of simultaneously trying to please two very different spymasters.  Dealing successfully with the devil is not easy.

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