The train now arriving...

For the last couple of weeks I have been in Berlin, entranced by David Downing's classic Station series; a lesson in how to write historical thrillers. Firmly of the school of Eric Ambler and Alan Furst, my Christmas Amazon vouchers came in very useful buying the final two installments of the Station series.

The four earlier installments have previously been reviewed here on Bookhound, but just a quick recap. The series starts with the dawn of 1939, and Europe sliding into war. John Russell, a British journalist has been living in Berlin for some years with his German actress girlfriend, Effi. The first 2 novels, Zoo and Silesian Station, deal with John and Effi's time in Berlin, Stettin Station - their attempt to flee the wartorn city, Potsdam is set at the time of the fall of Berlin, while Lehrter and Masaryk Station deal with the aftermath of the war up to the time of the Berlin airlift. Russell with loyalties to Britain and America and a Communist past ends up playing several secret services against each other. And his attempts to keep juggling them while trying to maintain the moral high ground provide the bulk of the story lines.

They might not always be entirely believable, but they're a fun read and at their best there is some seriously good writing here. Zoo Station is a great spy thriller, it reminded me strongly of Ambler's Cause for Alarm (also previously reviewed on Bookhound). And Potsdam Station isn't just a great thriller, it is a seriously good novel in its own right. If you want to know what it's like to live in a city under siege, a city where the norms of civilization are breaking apart this is the novel to read. It is stunningly good.

The last two in the series Lehrter Station and Masaryk Station are in some ways weaker. All the previous novels are easily readable and understandable even if you haven't read the earlier novels. No small feat, as there's a lot of back story - Downing creates really good characters, and much of the suspense is developed because you care about what happens to them. Lehrter however, you will enjoy the novel much more if you know the background. It's also one of the weaker novels in that it revolves strongly around the Black Market, and inevitably is going to be compared to The Third Man

Masaryk Station, I started off being quite disappointed by it, the pace was rather slow. Much of it wasn't set in Berlin - always Downing's best background. But the final half of the novel was great. It moved at one heck of a pace and brought all the strands of the series neatly together. I'm really going to miss this series, I've loved every moment of it, and will miss John, Effi, and their extended friends and family. Apparently Downing is about to write a new thriller series based around the First World War - I can't wait.


Popular Posts