Lehrter Station: A John Russell WWII Thriller by David Downing

Lehrter StationReviewed by Nancy Oakes

Lehrter Station is book number five in David Downing’s John Russell series, a mix of historical fiction, espionage and suspense set mainly in Germany just after the end of World War II. The Allied powers have divided the country into four occupation zones and refugees are returning home, although many are still missing. The country is largely in ruins, people are starving and in the midst of all of this turmoil, Russell and and his girlfriend Effi Koenen leave England and make their way back to Berlin.

Russell, Effi and their extended family were earlier given safe passage to England in exchange for Russell handing over atomic secrets to an NKVD agent and making the proverbial deal with the devil: Russell will be obligated to do more espionage work for the NKVD at some point in the future. It is now payback time. He is met by Soviet agents at a soccer game where they outline what it is they want him to do back in Berlin, and he is also instructed to offer himself as an American double agent. His offer is accepted; leaving his family behind, he and Effi make their return to war-torn Germany. As Russell gets settled in, meeting with his various intelligence masters and trying to find a story that will satisfy his journalistic ambitions, Effi sets out to search for lost friends and to discover any news about the father of Rosa, a little girl she rescued during the war and brought with her to England. But it isn’t long until their respective activities land them both in dangerous, life-threatening situations.

Downing sets his readers squarely into the early postwar atmosphere of occupied Berlin, including the burnt-out and bombed-out buildings, people desperately searching for missing friends and loved ones, and gangs stealing anything of value they can trade on the black market for food. He describes various Jewish organizations that differ in their postwar outlook — some looking for revenge on a personal scale, others who believe in a more concentrated and mass-scale approach, and still others who are busy working to get Jews on their way to a new homeland in Palestine, despite British opposition and despite the irony of the proven perils of nationalism. The black market is also a postwar reality, where deals are done under the noses of or even with authorization from occupation authorities. Not even hospitals are exempt: the black marketeers deal in much-needed medications, and thrive “on the misery of other people’s lives.” And while he adds a touch of sympathy for people who try to honorably do what they can to survive in extraordinary situations, Downing also points out that sometimes survival means working within a context of gray areas where a person may not have that choice.

Lehrter Station is a very good work of historical fiction, largely due to the author’s amazing ability to capture this very narrow slice of time from several points of view. It also works well as a spy novel, although I think the historical aspect outweighs the element of espionage even though it serves as the frame for Russell’s and Effi’s return to Berlin. My recommendation would be to not let this novel of Downing’s series be your first introduction to this series, but to start at the beginning with Zoo Station. Although many plot elements of the backstories are handled within the narrative, you lose something if you don’t start with the first book. I’d recommend this novel primarily to readers of historical fiction.

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