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
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.
©2008 David Downing; (P)2009 Audible, Inc.
"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)
Having read all of Alan Furst's wonderfully cinematic novels, I was especially glad to discover David Downing's. Downing mines the same territory as Furst. His descriptions of time and place may not match Furst's brilliance, but his characters are more developed and his novels have a real plot. And he has, blessedly, none of the embarrassingly described sex scenes that Furst seems to think are erotic. Simon Prebble is a splendid reader.
Once you listen to one book of this series, you will have to listen to them all. One is missing from audible, so sadly you will need to skip it or buy and read it in print. This series is everything you hope a ww2 novel would be. Sophisticated writing, full characters and very good sense of place and time. I was pleased that the undercover plots were not at all far fetched and with just one exception, totally plausible. I loved the fact that the novels are complete with in themselves, but the successive books resolve past plots more completely. Very satisfying espionage interwoven with the everyday life of good and bad people in Berlin during the worst times of the war.
Great read/listen, you are never disappointed with Simon Pebble as narrator. Enjoy like potato chips, just one will not be enough.
Zoo Station is the first in a four-book series by David Downing, set in pre-WWII Germany against the background of the rise of Hitler. Like authors Philip Kerr and Jonathan Rabb, Downing has accomplished meticulous research which he seamlessly weaves into his plot to create an eerie noir atmosphere, made all the more realistic and frightening because we know how it turns out. The main character in the series is English/American reporter John Russell, who has lived in Germany for many years, has had two families, and is caught up in the horror of what is happening around him. Using his position as a foreign correspondent, he becomes a spy of sorts for the good guys. I was totally gripped by this compelling tale, which proceeds relentlessly, but slowly, forward. I have already read the second John Russell book, Silesian Station, and am about to start on the third, Stettin Station. To put it mildly, I’m hooked. The reader was as good as they get.
Downing's Berlin trilogy are very well written (unlike most novels in the genre) and are much more than thrillers. The books paint a compelling picture of immediate pre-war and early-war Berlin and Germany, of the geopolitics of the time, and of the growing violence of the Nazi regime, towards Jews and and others - all through an exciting and plausible plot with interesting and believable characters. As another review noted, the subject matter can be depressing, but that is of the time. These books are real literature, far better written than,say, Kerr's novels. Simon Prebble is, as always, fantastic. I loved these books.
I would hardly call this a great book in the line of suspense writers of the period like John Le. Carre or Alan Furst. David Downing is not in their league.
Actually I am not sure this is even a suspense, espionage thriller. it is more a portrait of life in Berlin in the early part of 1939 than anything else. Yes our hero does get involved with spying for the NKVD and turning over plans to the Brits - but those seem more like side plots compared wtih tales of daily life in Berlin. There is the obligatory jewish family that John Russel has to help and who fall victim to the Gestapo - but there is not really much tension or excitement about that. The only really close call our main protagonist has comes at the very end of the book and even that is not that central to the story about Russel's relationship with his mistress, and son.
If you want an espionage novel, this is not the book for you. If you want a story about life and the trials and tribulations of living in Nazi Germany in 1939 this is a good read. However, I doubt if I will read another in the series. I prefer Alan Furst.
The only saving grace is that Simon Prebble, one of the all time great readers is narrating this book. A lesser reader and the book would fall flat. Simon Prebble really saves this book.
Audiobooks have literally changed my life. I now actually ENJOY doing mindless chores because they give me plenty of listening time!
I wouldn't have called myself a spy novel fan before reading this novel in which suspense and mystery are masterfully combined with historical events. The story begins on New Year 1939, exactly nine months before Hitler's invasion of Poland. British journalist John Russell has been living in Berlin since the early 20s, having fought in WWI and doing his best ever since to put the memories of trench warfare behind him. The Nazis have become all-powerful, with 1938's Kristallnacht—an attack on Germany and Austria's Jews during which more than 1,500 synagogues were ransacked, and more than 250 set on fire—still very fresh in everyone's memory. Jews are no longer allowed to earn a salary and are turned away from restaurants and most public places, dissidents of the Third Reich are sent to concentration camps and rarely returned to freedom in one piece, if at all. Considering all this, Russell knows he should leave Germany and seek shelter either in Britain or better yet, in the United States, where his American mother is living, but this option doesn't seem possible to him, since his twelve-year-old German son by a German ex-wife, Paul, along with the love of his life, Effy—a minor film star and local celebrity—won't likely be able to leave with him.
When he is coerced by a Soviet operative who requests he write articles for Russian newspapers, things take an even more dangerous turn for him. One of his neighbours, a young American journalist has hit upon a potentially explosive story—and one that is likely to get him killed—a reliable witness has given him documents confirming that the Nazis have been killing off disabled and mentally deficient children as part of their plan to purify the race, while keeping the parents in the dark as to the true cause of death. Russell knows better than to get involved, but before long he feels morally obliged to take on the documents. He's also taken on a private tutoring engagement to try to make ends meet—teaching English to two Jewish sisters who's parents want to send them to England. He becomes attached to the family and does all he can to help them, even as the father, a doctor who is no longer allowed to treat patients, is taken into a concentration camp under false charges. All these plot elements are woven together in an expert manner, and I found myself invested in the fates of these characters who are trying to survive in very dangerous times. The impeding sense of doom is very real, all the more so because while we know the historical facts, Downing does a commendable job of convincing us that the outcome is as yet unknown by presenting us with credible stories of individuals doing their best to survive. Captivating.
If you like Alan Furst stories you'll take to this series. Set in pre-war Germany when Brits were still free to move about and spy on Nazis. Not as opaque as Furst can be, but very much one's Everyman Brit who comes caught up in British and Soviet spy rings. As always, how can you go wrong with Prebble doing the reading.
There's no action that I can remember in this book, but extremely suspenseful. Think Hitchcock. Downing is in no hurry, so settle in for a good story with good characters, but if you are looking for action you will be disappointed. If you know that going in, you can settle in and enjoy it for what it is.As this is the first in the series there is a lot of backstory to his situation. Very suspenseful conclusion Extremely believable premise. Narration was fantastic, but slow. I listened at 1.25 speed and it flowed better. I never do that but in this case it worked well. Overall, as long as you're not looking for car explosions or gunfights you will enjoy.
Among top 10
The suicide of a desperate man whose wife had been refused care at the hospital where she was a nurse for 20 years.
This is a tense, taut book which successfully recreates the oppressive atmosphere of pre-WW II Berlin. The Nazi thuggery, the blatant antisemitism, the cowering populace, half invested and half-repelled by what has happened to Germany, the ever-present Gestapo. The delicate dance that the hero must do to evade punishment, yet remain tied to basic human values.
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