Stettin Station, by David Downing
Across three books David Downing has, with Zoo, Silesian and now Stettin Station, created a series of Europe-on-the-brink spy novels that are as claustrophobic and tense as anything this side of a great Alan Furst. Books set in the run up to the Second World War may be a ten a penny publisher’s staple these days but not many of them are actually either particularly convincing or particularly thrilling. Downing’s are.
His wrinkle is to set the Station books right inside the belly of the beast, in Berlin. Stettin Station takes the series into the early 1940s, with an evocation of Nazi Germany at the height of its powers almost without parallel. This Berlin is outwardly civilised, normal even, but with appalling bestiality never far from the surface. It is already a nightmarish place for many, it is fast becoming so for everybody else.
There are no comic book Nazis but instead frighteningly real people – ruthless, amoral, careerists in the world’s most appalling bureaucracy. Which also happens to be the World’s most cultured capital city. From book to book, even from chapter to chapter, the tension of living in this world mounts, as realisation inexorably dawns with each story told by a returning soldier and with every whispered mention of trainloads of Jews heading East. Even moving around the city serves to increase paranoia. It is utterly convincing.
John Russell is an Anglo-American journalist, who has lived long enough in Berlin to have acquired an ex-wife, a son in the Hitler Youth and a long time lover – the latter an increasingly reluctant actress in Josef Goebbel’s movie industry. With a long buried Communist past, Russell straddles all sides and is in demand with four different security services, not to mention with murderously competing factions within the Nazi regime itself. All want him to do small jobs. All have leverage on him. All are insistent. Russell struggles to balance what is best for himself, his family and friends. And to fulfill his growing sense of moral conscience. As with Zoo Station and Silesian Station, Russell’s life in Stettin Station is a mix of the ordinary and the extra-bloody-ordinary, with life and death dilemmas, unfathomable moral complexities, real bravery and real fear standing in for everyday life. As America nears inevitable entry to the War, Russell’s tightrope is stretched thinner and thinner and his safety nets are disappearing one by one.
All the Station books are are enjoyable as thrillers and are thought provoking enough to resonate long beyond the final page. Stettin Station is if anything the best of the three and is thankfully almost cliche free. John Russell is no superman, he does not have rampant moral certainty, is no more quirk-laden than the next man. His is not the only awakening in the book, his courses of action, his decisions not the only correct ones. Downing also inserts less plot into Stettin Station and the book is all the better for it. This tension feels more real, the moral dilemmas more hazardous.
Many are called but few are chosen to succed in this genre. Downing does so brilliantly and Stettin Station is a terrific read. Fear and loathing in Berlin, these are grown up thrillers for grown ups and fans of Philip Kerr, CJ Sansom, Alan Furst and John Lawton, should dive right in.