David Downing’s Station series has developed into a masterful fictionalised account of life in Nazi Germany, recommended for fans of Philip Kerr’s Berlin Noir or Alan Furst’s sophisticated WW2 spy stories. Stettin Station is the third in the Station series, and you are definitely advised to read the first two – Zoo and then Silesian – because otherwise many of the plots threads will be hard to follow in Stettin. If you’ve not tried this series then you have a treat in store for you: line up all six and enjoy an unusual perspective on wartime Germany…
The hero and heroine of the series, John and Effi, fall further into intrigue in this instalment. It’s 1941 and the bombs are starting to fall on Berlin as the German troops approach their goal in the east – Moscow. The war hangs in the balance. America has not yet joined the fray; no one knows who is really winning in Africa; German troops fighting in the USSR seem to make gains and then stall again.
Meanwhile, our journalist protagonist starts to understand what is happening to the Jews and outcasts who are being shipped to east, but as a naturalised American with German family and a German girlfriend, who is also a film star, there’s little he can do outwardly to upset the applecart. In secret, however, John passes information back and forth between all sides, playing communists off against Nazis, balancing the German army’s machinations against those of the SS, while trying to keep the American secret service happy as well.
John is the archetypal compromised spy: unsure of his allegiances and pressured from all angles. His small-scale actions, motivated by the personal need to protect his loved ones, cause ripples with global repercussions. This is first-class spy-storytelling: when the movement of seemingly insignificant pawns can cause whole empires to sway…
Downing brilliantly captures the air of expectation of this period, of how it might have been for the man in the street – not quite knowing what’s really going on, listening in secret to BBC broadcasts, wondering if he or she should pray for victory or defeat. For German civilians who were opposed to the war, British bombers over Berlin were a mixed blessing, bringing death, destruction but perhaps the promise of the end of Nazism.
Stettin Station is the most claustrophobic of the books thus far in the series, and the most tense. Little apparently happens for much of it, but that’s the point of war and especially of espionage. Nothing much happens but the peril is appalling.
Downing’s language is easy to read and his insights into the life and situation of wartime Germany are fascinating. I already knew, for instance, that the winter weather in Russia slowed the advance towards Moscow. Understanding the details (German steam engines froze as their pipes were external, and they didn’t have big enough water tanks to travel between Soviet water towers) added considerably to my understanding of historical events.
It’s also interesting to observe Downing’s writing developing as this series progresses. The first book was fine – but nothing particularly special. In Stetting Station he really finds his stride; hence my suggestion that he’s reached a similar standard to Kerr and Furst.
Stettin Station finishes with a considerable cliff-hanger, so you’ll want to scamper on to the next book to find out what happens to the lead characters. This episode closes with many things left to resolve. The good news is that there Stettin is only the mid-way point in this series: there are six books in total in the Station series and the plot continues in Potsdam Station.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
Stettin Station by David Downing, and the other books in the Station series, are available as ebooks and paperbacks at Amazon