I am not a fast reader. So the fact that I finished all five books in David Downing's John Russell series in just over three weeks means that a) Zoo Station (book one) hooked me on the first page b) I made more time to read fiction that at any point in the past five years of get up-research-write-parent-go to bed-repeat c) Downing is a master of plot, characterisation and pace.
In book five, Lehrter Station, we find Russell, the half British, half American journalist who risked everything to stay in Hitler's Berlin and only fled when his luck finally ran out and Gestapo closed in, returning to find the city and the life he knew before World War II in rubble. Though his son, Paul, has survived the war and is now living in London (along with a Jewish orphan Russell's partner, Effi, took in during the war, Russell's sister-in-law and her son) many of his friends are gone, as is the city's moral fabric. The Nazi regime is no more and British and American administrators, the Red Army and NKVD, and criminal bosses are competing to fill the void.
As with each book in this series, Berlin's train stations are, as the titles suggest, indicative of the world their passengers inhabit. Here's a fine passage that describes what Russell sees on one rail journey:
"The next train was tightly packed, its passengers almost bursting out through the opening doors. Shoving his way on board, Russell found himself standing with his face almost pressed to the glass and forced to confront Berlin's ruin. The gouged and pitted flak towers were still there, and beyond them the deforested Tiergarten, a sea of stumps in which small islands of cultivation were now sprouting. The air on the train offered stark proof of the continuing soap shortage."
Russell himself is no less conflicted than the city he has called home for the best part of twenty years. Part of him longs to be back in London with his son, while another is determined to make a go of it in Berlin with Effi alongside him. And now, in late 1945, he doesn't really have a choice but to stay - Russian intelligence has called in the payback for getting him and his family out of the city as the Third Reich crumbled around them.
The protagonist is not a Jason Bourne-style hero, who inspires confidence that he can handle any situation. Instead, Russell is a forty-something everyman, who relies on his wits, ability to read people and, often, dumb luck, to stay alive. This is part of his appeal - it's easier to identify with a real, vulnerable person like Russell than a trained killing machine like Bourne (though, I must confess, I do enjoy the movies about the latter). Through five books, Downing has developed the character of Russell so that I agonise with him through his moral dilemmas without pitying him, and understand why he does certain things without his actions being predictable. Russell gets in enough scrapes to maintain suspense and, at times, a feeling of dread, but his daily comings and goings are just as revealing and interesting.
One of Downing's greatest skills is to convey the complexity of Russell and Effi's emotions, the chaotic backdrop of postwar Berlin, and the balancing act of Russell's dealings with the German, Soviet, British and American authorities while retaining a sense of purpose and clarity in his narrative. There is so much going on in the background that a lesser writer would become distracted and let the plot drift. Not so with Downing, who keeps the focus on Russell's dealings with his Soviet overlords, search for two possible survivors of the Holocaust, and close calls with a German crime boss.
Well written historical fiction can often tell us more about the mood of a people and the feel of a time and place than journalism or history, and this is the case with Lehrter Station. Downing often accomplishes such revelation subtly through observation, and sometimes encapsulates it in overt statements from Russell or Effi. One late night conversation between them offers us her perceptive appraisal:
"In London it felt like people were only thinking of the future, that they wanted to put the war behind them. But it's not like that here. The fighting's over, but not the war. That poor girl in Joachim's room - if she started weeping she'd never stop. The fight we saw at the station, Miriam's father half-killed by Poles, not to mention the Russians' plans for you. I know the Nazis are gone but..."
Through the eyes of this couple, we see that in "peacetime" Berlin it's not easy to separate the villains from the heroes, if the latter even exist. Everyone is on the take, from the American soldiers trading black market goods with criminals, to the British soldiers hiring young German prostitutes, to the Red Army troops raping their way across the city. Downing explores Berliners' mixed motives without shying away from difficult appraisals, such as the mindset and actions of Jews who've survived the Final Solution.
This was one of the most fascinating elements of Lehrter Station. Some Jews, like the father of the teenager Miriam Rosenfeld who John and Effi are searching for, have broken minds and bodies. Others are committed to starting over in Palestine or to struggling on in Berlin, where they get more generous rations and preferential housing. At the other end of the continuum are those pursuing vengeance, like the Ghosts of Treblinka movement, whose members cut Jewish stars into the forearms of the Nazis they kill. It would be easy for Downing to lapse into cliché here but instead he gives us a portrayal of rough, real humanity with all its ambiguities. He prompted me to examine my own moral compass, and to project how I would treat people who killed my friends and family members. Could I forgive, or would I seek retribution?
The previous four volumes of the John Russell series were all compelling and well written, but Lehrter Station surpasses them because of the sheer degree of difficulty involved and the sprezzaturra with which Downing pulls it off. In a recent interview, the Guildford-based scribe revealed he's working on the next installment. I will be pre-ordering it the day it's available, and eagerly await the World War I series he's planning. Downing is a master at work.