Downing begins his second novel in the John Russell series with a girl being sent by her Jewish farm family to Berlin where they expect things to be better. She arrives at the Berlin Siliesian Station (now known as Berlin Ostbahnhof, it was a main station in East Berlin) expecting to be picked up by her uncle, but instead is met by someone in his stead. She disappears.
John Russell is on his way back from the United States where he has been visiting with his son, Paul, and obtaining an American passport (it’s complicated, but explained in Zoo Station, the first volume - they should be read in order). While on the return voyage he receives a telegram informing him that his girlfriend, Effie, has been arrested by the Gestapo. Russell realizes it’s because they want something from him.
John’s ex-brother-in-law, Tom, whom he trusts implicitly, reveals the niece of one of his Jewish employees has disappeared and her uncle had been killed by storm-trooper thugs shortly before she was due to arrive. Russell, having written a story about private detectives a year before promises to find one who might be able to look for the girl. The detective is shut down by the police so Russell embarks on his own search.
And so begins another in this excellent series, part spy novel, part mystery. Downing’s choice of a journalist as the protagonist is an excellent vehicle for portraying the events the events surrounding Germany’s annexation of Czechoslovakia and the provocations leading up to the invasion of Poland. Russell observes all these events “from the ground” so-to-speak which gives them an intricacy and immediacy not often present in a history book, which by its very nature, has to take a broader view. Yet at the same time, Downing provides that as well through the interactions of Russell with the Gestapo and the British foreign office.
Downing must have done an immense amount of research to get the details of ordinary life down so well. (Remember Pathe newsreels?) An excellent series.
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