David Downing's Zoo Station kicks
off the John Russell series, which now stands at 5 volumes. It's just turned
1939 when the novel opens and sabres are rattling. Russell, an Anglo-American
journalist living in Berlin, plies his trade with his girlfriend movie star and
son along to round his character out. He's a former Communist party member, a
veteran of WWI with a desire to do the right thing. All the ingredients for a
great Berlin Noir thriller.
Except ZOO STATION isn't.
Thrilling, that is.
Downing does an exceptional job
of recreating the sights and sounds of Berlin in 1939, only he does it a little
too well and the novel begins to read like a travelogue. If you're a fan of
books that come to a complete halt for descriptive details the reader can
wallow in, then you will love ZOO STATION. If you're looking for an
edge-of-your-seat adventure, look elsewhere.
Russell is going about his
business when he is contacted by Soviet spies asking him to write a series of
articles covering the Reich and the countries around the Germany. The idea is
that if he were to fall across any sensitive information, that he will pass it
on to the Soviets in exchange for the comfortable sum they will pay him for the
pieces. The Nazis get wind of this deal and get him to "volunteer" to
report to them on anything he might learn from the Soviets. The British learn of this and strike the same deal.
Sure, if you're a fan of spy
fiction, your mouth is watering. Well, here's a napkin, stop drooling. The
novel unfolds this tale at a glacial pace. Russell goes from one place to the
next and we are given detailed descriptions of how he got there, what he ate,
what he saw, who he met, and that's about it. He teaches English to the
daughters of a Jewish family preparing to emigrate. He witnesses the launching
of the Bismarck, hears Hitler gives speeches, observes Nazi cruelty and so on
but none of these things affect the plot in any way. Russell writes his
articles, goes to games with his son, beds his girlfriend every time they meet,
then listens to her complain about the German film industry. All very slice of
life, all very well presented, all dull as dishwater.
There are no thrills, no chills
and your behind will stay firmly planted well back on your seat. The novel
suffers from too many things happening around
the characters and not too them. The result is a read rich in period detail and
commendable for meticulous research but, ultimately, boring.
I strongly recommend ZOO STATION for the historical aspect, but not for the plot. If you're in the mood to visit Berlin, circa 1939, from the safely of your armchair, then this novel will scratch you right where you itch. If you're looking for an engaging thrilled amidst a bygone setting, you will be disappointed. ZOO STATION is a slow read on a rainy Sunday and that's about it. Also, you'll have no trouble falling asleep if you park this on on you bedside table for night time reading.