Waiting at the station....
I recently got the latest in David Downing's excellent Station series of thrillers Potsdam Station, and decided to re-read the entire series up to now. These really are very good; excellent, atmospheric mysteries opening in Berlin in 1938 in the run-up to the Nazi takeover of Czechoslovakia through the declaration of war in 1939, the American entry to the war, and then the final battle for Berlin.
As far as mysteries go, the first two books in the series Zoo Station and Silesian Station are the best - charting the path to war, and the hero, John Russell's attempts to balance the demands of competing intelligence services, while still trying to maintain his journalistic integrity and attempting to investigate some of the nastier, and hidden, sides of the early Nazi regime. Downing is adept at conjuring up atmosphere and the growing menace of Nazism is well and chillingly portrayed here. Berlin itself though is the star of the show with a wonderful evocation of a city entering a very dark period.
Inevitably, perhaps because of the historical context, the next novel in the series Stettin Station has jumped on a few years to the weeks leading up to Pearl Harbor. I found this the most unsatisfactory of the 4 novels, the two lead characters spend much of the time running round in circles in an attempt to escape Nazi Germany before the war closes in on them. Although I accept that for many people this period must have been very like this, with the same sense of frustration that is built up very cleverly in the book, for a full length novel it does become a bit wearing.
Potsdam Station moves on again. It is now 1945, and Berlin is about to fall to the Red Army. Russell, who has been exiled from Berlin since his escape at the end of Stettin Station, has hitched a lift back to Berlin with an NKVD (latterly KGB) officer, who is on the trail of the Nazis' atomic programme. Russell is less interested in promoting Russian supremacy in a post-war world, but is desperate to find his son, Paul, fighting with the German army in defence of Berlin, and Effi, his girlfriend, trapped in the city. There's not much mystery about this novel, but it is a great thriller, as the three heroes fight desperately to survive in a city in which normal life is rapidly disintegrating. Downing writes with brilliance here, he owes a lot to such popular histories as Antony Beevor's Berlin: The Downfall and Cornelius Ryan's The Last Battle, but these add real verisimiltude to the novel which is a real cliffhanger of a story and superbly puts all the threads in place for some great Cold War stories featuring Russell. I can't wait.