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by David Downing
Soho Crime, May 2012
304 pages
ISBN: 1616950749

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

LEHRTER STATION is David Downing's fifth spy novel featuring the admirable John Russell, journalist and erstwhile spy. In this book, which closely follows on the events of POTSDAM STATION, the time is right after the end of WWII. POTSDAM STATION showed us the last days of the war and the liberation of Berlin. It had us follow three individuals, whose separate stories only come together at the very end: John Russell, his lover Effi, and John's son Paul, an eighteen-year-old soldier in the German army.

Now Berlin is divided into occupation zones, and Russell is "invited" to return from the relative calm of London to spy on the Americans for the Russians. Because of events at the end of the war, he is indebted to the Russians, and cannot refuse their offer. However, it is a "looking-glass world" to which he returns. He uses this phrase to refer to his situation on more than one occasion, and the convoluted nature of his circumstances warrants this analogy. His assignment is to go to the Americans and tell them that he has been asked by the Russians to spy on them. In essence, he is offering himself to them as a double agent. Actually, however, he would still be working for the Russians. This is delectable fare for readers who enjoy spying entanglements.

Russell is British with American citizenship, but sees himself as essentially self-employed, his own person. He has thoughtful and considered ideas about why he does what he does, much of which relate to needing to protect his family. He goes with a Jewish group to report on the organized routes for Jews to travel to Palestine. By doing this he is going against the British. Much fascinating details and commentary accompany every piece of Russell's journey through war-ravaged Europe. We learn about both sides of the argument concerning the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, an event that had not yet occurred. As Russell travels, the reader can taste and smell the devastation, both in the wreckage of the cities and in the shattered lives of the survivors. Although he has ration cards, there is not much decent food to be had and cigarettes are the most valued form of currency. Downing always has an eye for the telling details. He has Russell note that hungry dogs abound in Berlin, but not a single bird or domestic cat.

Russell has returned to Berlin with his long-term love, Effi, a German actress who has been offered a leading film role as part of the Russian plan. Besides the jobs they have been assigned, they are both also looking for missing persons. A Jewish child named Rosa whom Effi adopted near the end of the war may or may not have a living father. They search for him as well as for a young woman whose parents they found alive. The black market has a strong presence in Berlin, and both Russell and Effi get pulled into some of its machinations without meaning to. Russell is faced with corruption on all levels and from all Occupying forces. The Germans, he knows, did despicable things during the war, but others committed atrocities as well. Now he discovers that ex-Nazis are being allowed to hold positions of power if they have proven themselves useful to the Occupation. He must decide what to do when he is being told to leave them alone. The wrath of his handlers if he disobeys could mean his death at any time.

Downing is a very skillful writer. He gives you just enough of the past to have the present of this book make sense. Yet he is able to tantalize you with what he does not reveal so that you want to read the previous books and learn the details. LEHRTER STATION is highly recommended both for its evocation of a harrowing historical period and for its intrigue as a spy thriller.

Anne Corey is a writer, poet, teacher and botanical artist in New York's Hudson Valley.

Reviewed by Anne Corey, March 2012

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