By 1939, Anglo-American journalist John Russell has spent 15 years in Berlin, where his German-born son lives. He writes human-interest pieces for British and American papers, avoiding the investigative journalism that could get him deported. But as war approaches, he faces the prospect of having to leave his son and his longtime girlfriend.Then, an acquaintance from his communist days approaches him to do some work for the Soviets. Russell is reluctant but ultimately unable to resist. He becomes involved in other dangerous activities, helping a Jewish family and an idealistic American reporter. When the British and the Nazis notice his involvement with the Soviets, Russell is dragged into the world of warring intelligence services.More
In David Downing’s Zoo Station, the trappings of the spy genre come up against Nazi Germany’s theories of eugenics, as Silesian Station’s John Russell is coerced into writing coded reports for the Soviets under the eyes of the Gestapo. The result is an entertaining if rather low-key adventure, which does a good job in capturing the insidious spread of discrimination piecemeal legislation and hardening social attitudes, as well as sudden flashes of sickening violence.
Although conspicuously well-researched, Downing’s writing doesn’t always live up to the gravity of the subject matter. A statement is so incredulous “a reefer-smoking Neville Chamberlain would find (it) hard to believe” this feels clumsy and anachronistic. And the subject matter can make the dry noir style fall far short and feel pat rather than hard-boiled: “They were killers. It was what they were. It was in truth all that they were.”
Other than that, all the classic ingredients of a spy romp are present and correct: A tense train journey (the final scene is hair-raising), interrogations, briefcases with hidden compartments. Yet the writing is curiously unidiomatic; despite the author’s cartographical fetish (every journey, no matter its relevance, is carefully mapped out) there is little atmosphere of time and place this could be set in any city in 2010 no less than Berlin 1939, which, perhaps, is the point.
What brings the story to life, though, is the narration by veteran Simon Prebble, who has performed books by authors ranging from Danielle Steele to Arthur Conan Doyle, Stephen Hawking to Ian McEwan. In Zoo Station, he hones his versatile voice into something as weary, crumpled, and no-nonsense as an old trench coat. A convincing spy, his accent-less voice is just right for a man with no fixed roots or allegiances (an Englishman cut off from his country, with a German-born son) and the trace of suspicion in his delivery manages to convey a mind trying to make sense of the an escalating nightmare while guarding against possible betrayals. Dafydd Phillips
"This is a quiet but suspenseful tale of an ordinary man living in a dangerous place during a dangerous time who finds within himself the strength to do heroic acts." (Booklist)
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Review for the whole series
As Good as Alan Furst