By David Downing
306 Pages; $24
In Zoo Station,
David Downing's 2007 novel, he introduced his protagonist, John Russell, espionage agent and foreign correspondent, stationed in Berlin. Russell has a British father and an American mother who are separated. His marriage to Ilse, a German woman, produced one son, Paul, now 12. Ilse and Russell were divorced and she remarried. Their relationship remains amiable and although she has custody of Paul, Russell often sees him for outings.
In fact, as Silesian Station
opens in 1939, Russell and Paul are returning from a trip to America where Russell, formerly a freelance journalist, took a job as Central and East European correspondent for the San Francisco Tribune.
He also obtained an American passport in exchange for promising to work covertly for US intelligence.
As Russell and Paul arrive in Europe, Russell is advised that his girlfriend, Effi, a German film actress, has been arrested by the Gestapo. On reaching Berlin, Russell arranges for her release in exchange for agreeing to serve as a secret Nazi agent. His assignment is to restore a former relationship with the Soviets with whom he once worked. He will then transmit false information to them provided by the Nazis.
As though working simultaneously for three different spy organizations is not enough, Russell also accepts a request from a friend that he look into the mysterious disappearance of a 17-year old Jewish girl from Silesia whose family sent her to an uncle in Berlin to escape growing anti-Semitism in their home community. The uncle, who worked for Russell's friend, was beaten up by Nazi storm troopers and died before he could meet his niece at the train station.
Juggling all these assignments and his newspaper job, Russell travels to Prague, Breslau, Bratislava, Warsaw and Moscow.
Aside from the tension of maintaining clandestine relationships with three intelligence organizations, Russell is also anxious about the well-being of Effi and Paul. These concerns unfold as the war fever grows in Europe with the Nazis threatening Poland as they move away from a tenuous relationship with England and France to make a pact with the Soviet Union.
Author Downing appears to be an expert on rail service in Europe, providing lots of information about train schedules. He knows about restaurants, beer gardens and coffee shops in Berlin and elsewhere which Russell incessantly patronizes. Downing also demonstrates his familiarity with the street layout of European cities. In both Zoo Station
and Silesian Station,
he successfully combines Russell's adversities with the gathering storm clouds of war over Europe. The miserable treatment of Jews by the Nazis is featured in each book. The second book ends in September 1939 when World War II began. For readers who prefer to read the series sequentially, Soho Press has published a paperback edition of Zoo Story
that is appearing at the same time as i>Silesian Station. Both books are welcome additions to the espionage genre.
The writer is the founding dean of the Wurzweiler School of Social Work at Yeshiva University and dean emeritus of the School of Social Work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.