David Downing's third
volume in the John Russell series is an improvement over the other Downing book
reviewed here at Berlin Noir Reviews but that's not saying much. Set in Berlin
a month before the Pearl Harbor attack, the first cracks in the 1000-year Reich
are just starting to show as the city is being bombed by the British and the
Russian campaign has taken a turn for the worst. Everyone is wondering if the
US will enter the war and, soon, the answer to that question would make itself
felt with cataclysmic results.
And yet a tenuous
optimism struggles to persist. The Nazis are busy being Nazis, journalists from
around the world are spoon-fed what they need to know and forbidden to report
what they've find out on their own as the city holds its breath.
Although the novel
reads better than SILESIAN STATION, it suffers from the same shortcomings.
The plot centers around John Russell's attempt to evade the Gestapo while
working for the NKVD and the Abwehr at the same time. If this seems familiar,
it's because this is the same plot as SILESIAN STATION. Let me clarify.
As a series, the books do not appear to be stand alone adventures and Russell's
walking of the razor's edge carries over from one book to the next.
In STETTIN STATION,
Russell and his lady-love, an actress named Effi, are soon convinced the time has
come to leave Germany together before he gets thrown out and must leave Effi
behind. Goebbels is not about to let one of the shining lights of his
propaganda moving making machine just walk away and Russell is accused of
espionage so a simple getaway is not going to happen. A considerable portion of
the book is dedicated to showing us how Effi becomes disillusioned with her
job. Set against the impending entry of the US and building tension in Berlin
as a result, this plot line hardly seems to matter and fails to captivate.
Also, the book is far
too talky. With all of the tension in the air, there's not much actually going
on. The characters move from place to place, talking about what they must do to
survive and what the future holds. Even the "escape" provides days in
hiding where more chatter about their plight can be related as opposed to
actual action. There are spurts of action toward the end, but STETTIN
STATION is no thriller. The prose is sparse, uninspired and devoid
of what John D. MacDonald called "unobtrusive poetry". And there is
Historical details are
plentiful and help to create a sense of Berlin under the Nazis but they fail to
totally immerse the reader. They put a frame around the plot and seem authentic
but occasionally act only as necessary window dressing for the next
conversation - a photograph of a delicious meal we are detached from.
This lack of resolution
to important plotlines will also leave readers gritting their teeth. Downing
expects readers to be on board for the whole series and the fate of some
characters are left to the next book just as the start of STETTIN STATION
carried over story elements from the previous installment in the series. Given
Downing's dull plotting and flat prose, that's a tall order for readers as the
series currently runs six volumes. As a series it begs to be read in order so
reader should keep that in mind before attempting to dive in.
Summing up, I enjoyed
STATION slightly more than I did SILESIAN STATION.
So far this series can be filed in the 'take it or leave it' category. Nothing
dismal yet nothing to get excited about either. I can't say I'm enthusiastic
for the remaining novels but I can hope the slow moving plot eventually
resolves itself with some satisfaction and enjoyment. There's nowhere to go but
up for the John Russell series.