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Sunday, May 13, 2012

"Lehrter Station (John Russell #5)" by David Downing (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

INTRODUCTION: Together with Alan Furst's historical novels about the immediate pre-WW 2 period, David Downing's John Russell novels which start on New Year's day 1939 in Zoo Station and so far cover the period up to New Year's Day 1946 at the end of Lehrter Station are big favorites that combine superb historical fiction - atmosphere, characters - with a dash of intrigue and action. Here is the blurb and more about it below.

"Paris, November 1945. John Russell is walking home along the banks of the Seine on a cold and misty evening when Soviet agent Yevgeny Shchepkin falls into step alongside him. Shchepkin tells Russell that the American intelligence will soon be asking him to undertake some low grade espionage on their behalf—assessing the strains between different sections of the German Communist Party—and that Shchepkin’s own bosses in Moscow want him to accept the task and pass his findings on to them. He adds that refusal will put Russell’s livelihood and life at risk, but that once he has accepted it, he’ll find himself even further entangled in the Soviet net. It’s a lose-lose situation.

Shchepkin admits that his own survival now depends on his ability to utilize Russell. The only way out for the two of them is to make a deal with the Americans. If they can come up with something the Americans want or need badly enough, then perhaps Russell will be forgiven for handing German atomic secrets over to Moscow and Shchepkin might be offered the sort of sanctuary that also safeguards the lives of his wife and daughter in Moscow. Every decision Russell makes now is a dangerous one.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Lehrter Station is the fifth John Russell novel and it was still captivating and making me want the next installment asap - and there will be a next and probably as many as the market will bear since there is so much stuff that's going on and as the hero puts it:

"Rather to his surprise, he felt more sanguine about his new espionage career than he had when the Soviets first came to call. Wondering why, he realized what had changed. While the Nazis had flourished, he’d had no ethical room for manoeuvre. Helping them, or hindering their enemies, were not things he could live with. Or not with any sense of self-worth. But that black-and-white world had vanished with Hitler, and the new one really was in shifting shades of grey. He could make arguments for and against any of the major players; in helping one or the other he had no sense of supporting good against evil, or evil against good. If, in personal terms, Yevgeny Shchepkin was almost a kindred spirit, and Scott Dallin someone from a distant unfriendly planet, he had no illusions about Stalin’s Russia. And though American help was his only way out of the Soviet embrace, that didn’t mean he wanted a world run by money and big business"

Coming back to the book, first let's note that the blurb is wrong since it's London November 1945, John and his extended family (Effi - his longtime German actress girlfriend who missed escaping with him from Nazi Germany in late 1941 and spent the rest of the war in Berlin acting the part of an old woman and working for the underground that tried saving Jews and regime opponents, Rosa - their 7 year old Jewish "adopted" daughter assuming of course that her father is not to be found in the ruins of Germany, Paul - his 19 year old son and scarred veteran of the Reich's army, Zarah - Effi's sister married with a former mid/high ranking Nazi bureaucrat presumed dead or arrested, Lothar - her 11 year old son) are living in modest circumstances there, though Zarah and Paul are adapting better, while John is sort of blacklisted by the British press and Effi wants to act again (noting that while she did not act in a movie since 1941, she acted for her life in Berlin 1941-1945).

The first Soviet team (ironically the NKVD team, Dynamo) to visit the UK (and mostly trashing the British footballers on home ground) brings Yevgeny Shchepkin and his sinister boss Nemedin to London with an offer John Russell cannot refuse as trading atomic secrets to the Russians for his family above while understandable at a personal level can still lead to the gallows or the electric chair depending which of the two countries he is citizen of gets to try him; though of course Yevgeny wants out too so they form an alliance and John starts playing the double agent role though it is not yet clear for whom yet as the quote above notes...

The offer included John getting back into journalism and Effi back in movies, both of course back in occupied Berlin and the story moves there and continues to a very good ending point a few months later for what is the first of hopefully many postwar novels.

Here is another memorable quote:

"The war had only been over six months, but the British and the French were already irrelevant – there were only two real powers in the city, or in the wider continent. And as luck would have it, he was working for both."

The journalism part starts involving the Jewish underground routes to Palestine and trips to Austria, Poland and Czechoslovakia and the kicking of the local Germans back to the Reich, but as usual the book is about atmosphere and the author is just a master at that recreating Berlin late 1945 and its myriad inhabitants, transients and occupants superbly; there are a few loose threads from older novels that are finally tied here (the fate of Miriam Rosenthal and of Rosa's father occupy John and Effy for most of the book), dangerous gangsters, ambiguous allied officers and of course the "jobs" John has to do for his American and Soviet masters...

While the usual danger moments and suspense occur here and there, the novel is mostly historical fiction that lives and breathes through its characters, mainly John and Effi who split the pages between them.

As mentioned the novel ends at a good stopping point and I am really looking forward to the next installment as new storylines are introduced, new loose ends develop and new secondary characters of interest appear in addition to many secondary characters from the previous 4 novels.

Excellent stuff and highly recommended.

And to end, another great quote that now looks to the future and has John  and Albert Wiesner (whom John helped escape Nazi Germany through his Soviet connections after his eminent Jewish physician father has been murdered by the Nazis in 1939 and Albert assaulted some Gestapo officials and became a fugitive, while later John helped his mother and sister emigrate to London using this time his UK intelligence connections -  note that here it is still late 1945, so the state of Israel is still in the future) discussing the future of the surviving European Jews:

"‘Says who? I didn’t think you were religious.’
Albert grinned. ‘I’m not.’
‘I don’t think you can use the Bible as a title deed,’ Russell insisted.
‘Some people do. Like the Europeans who conquered the Americas – being in touch with the right God made everything okay.’
‘You don’t believe that.’
‘I think that’s what will happen.’
Russell thought about that. ‘Maybe it will,’ he conceded. ‘A friend of mine suggested emptying Cyprus – the Greeks to Greece, the Turks to Turkey – and then giving it to the Jews. Lovely beaches, good soil, not that far from Jerusalem.’
Albert propped his head up on one arm and gave Russell a look. ‘We already have our homeland.’
‘Yes, I expect you do.’
‘And I’ll tell you something else,’ Albert said. ‘I understand why the Poles are expelling the Germans from their new territories. And I understand why they’re making it impossible for the Jews to return. If my friends and I have our way, the Arabs will all be expelled from Palestine. Anything else is just storing up trouble for the future.’
‘That will put a bit of a strain on the world’s sympathy, don’t you think?’
`Once we have the land, we can do without the sympathy.’"



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