BookBrowse Reviews Lehrter Station by David Downing

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Lehrter Station

A John Russell Thriller

by David Downing

Lehrter Station by David Downing
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    May 2012, 304 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2013, 304 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Donna Chavez

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A Cold War espionage thriller about the spoils of war, set in 1945 Paris

David Downing is a master of establishing a keen sense of time and place. Even though I've never been to Berlin, much less anywhere in the winter of 1945, on every page of this novel I was awash in the crumbled ruins of Hitler's wrath. Strange choice of word, "wrath" - especially when used to characterize the Führer's dream of a utopian Germany? Well, there you are. That is Downing's voice, translated through protagonist John Russell. It's a voice that leaves me feeling as though the national leaders who engaged in World War II cared less about the safety and sanctity of people's lives than they did about the advancement of their cause. That Hitler might have preferred total destruction of the nation over sharing the country with non-Aryans becomes a logical conclusion one might draw here.

Because of Hitler's despicable actions and the subsequent involvement of so many countries in the war, Downing's main characters, Anglo-American journalist Russell (who lived in Germany before the war, has an adult son with his ex-German wife, and has spent most of the war years in Germany) and his German actress girlfriend Effi Koenen, find their lives upended. Whether through happenstance, self-and-family-preservation or some cockeyed combination of the two, Russell turns his journalist credibility to espionage. Lehrter Station is not a modern day Bourne-style shoot 'em up espionage - nor have any of Downing's previous novels ever been. No. Downing's style is less James Bond, more James and the Giant Peach in the measure of Russell's quiet resourcefulness as he encounters a series of potentially lose-lose situations.

As a protagonist, Russell combines all the cynicism of his journalistic background with his life as a former World War I soldier bearing witness to the havoc World War II has wreaked. And so this also becomes a kind of clean-up as Russell reconnects with a number of the people he encountered in the previous books, including his beloved Effi and his Russian nemesis, Yevgeny Shchepkin. However, Europe appears beyond clean up, beyond any kind of repair at all with the British, the French, the Americans and Russians all vying for the spoils. The image of circling vultures, while not used by Downing, is more than fitting for the scene he portrays.

Russell laments, "Who would have thought that peace would prove more difficult than the war? The diminished danger of imminent death was certainly to be welcomed, but what else had peace brought in its train? Chaos, hunger, and corrupted ideals. Ivan the Rapist and GI Joe the Profiteer."

This is not a heartening look at post-war Europe by any means. Nor is it a reassuring view of war, period. And at times characterization and plot take a back seat to setting the scene of the abject devastation of people's lives, friends, family and homes. So, has Downing written a novel or an anti-war polemic? Maybe it is a little of each. For many of us, recent wars have waged nearly invisible damage on our everyday lives; perhaps Downing's work is intended to deliver the feel if not the reality close to mind. He succeeds.

This is the fifth in the John Russell series that opened in Berlin in 1939. Goodness knows there was enough political turmoil in the post-war years to provide ample grist for Russell's cynical bully pulpit. I'll be waiting for more.

About the Series

  1. Zoo Station (2007): It's 1939, and Anglo-American journalist John Russell has spent over a decade in Berlin, where his son lives with his German mother. He writes human-interest pieces for British and American papers, avoiding the investigative journalism that could get him deported. But as World War II approaches, he faces having to leave his son as well as his girlfriend of several years, a beautiful German starlet.
  2. Silesian Station (2008): Set mostly in Berlin in 1939, Russell gets involved in multiple intrigues while working as an amateur spy for the intelligence services of assorted major powers.
  3. Stettin Station (2009): It's November 1941, and Russell has decided that he and Effi Koenen need to leave Berlin while they still can, but given Koenen's high public profile, he must find an illegal way to do so. His planning coincides with the escalation of tensions between the U.S. and Japan as well as growing evidence that the Nazis have begun carrying out the Final Solution with the forced transport of Berlin's Jewish community.
  4. Potsdam Station (2010): In April 1945, Hitler's Reich is on the verge of extinction. Assaulted by Allied bombs and Soviet shells, ruled by Nazis with nothing to lose, Berlin has become the most dangerous place on earth. John Russell's son Paul is stationed on the Eastern Front with the German Army, awaiting the Soviets' final onslaught.
  5. Lehrter Station (2012): Set in Paris, in the winter of 1945
  6. Masaryk Station (2013): Berlin, 1948. Still occupied by the four Allied powers and largely in ruins, the city has become the cockpit of a new Cold War. John Russell works for both Stalin's NKVD and the newly created CIA, trying his best to cut himself loose from both before his double-agency is discovered by either. As tensions between the great powers escalate, each passing day makes Russell's position more treacherous. He and his Soviet liaison, Shchepkin, seek out one final operation—one piece of intelligence so damning it could silence the wrath of one nation and solicit the protection of the other.

Reviewed by Donna Chavez

This review was originally published in May 2012, and has been updated for the March 2013 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.



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