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by David Downing
Soho Crime, June 2013
330 pages
ISBN: 1616952237

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

This thriller is advertised as the last book in David Downing’s engrossing series about the WWII adventures of journalist John Russell. Russell has been acting as a double agent for over ten years and we have followed his spying activities through many European countries. He is supposedly gathering information for both the CIA and Stalin’s equivalent, the NKVD. The year is now 1948, and since the reader knows from the start that this will be his last appearance, one of the questions hovering over the text is whether he will survive this dangerous time in a divided Berlin or die during one of his on-going assignments. Certainly his death would put an end to the series, but so would his escape from his spying yoke.

His current cover is that he is researching the “Rat Line,” a way of sneaking people safely out of Europe who needed to get away. Some of them are Jews trying to get to Israel, but he knows that often the people helped to escape are ex-Nazis. As Russell goes about doing what his superiors tell him to do, he is less and less happy about putting himself in potentially lethal and morally questionable situations. A bomb meant for him kills a beautiful little girl whom he had befriended. As he crisscrosses war-torn Europe, going about his work, getting forged passports and helping people escape, he keeps having to revisit places which remind him of violent events from his past. He is tired of it all and his conscience bothers him. He wants to be home with his actress wife Effi and their adopted daughter Rosa.

Russell wants out, as does his Soviet handler Shchepkin. How to remove themselves from involvement with these two countries as the Cold War is beginning seems like a pipe dream until they learn about a piece of film. The film shows a high-ranking Soviet official committing murder. This information relates back to events in the opening chapter of the book, which up until now did not seem to fit in. Russell and Shchepkin must complete an operation where they retrieve this film and use it to blackmail their way to freedom. How this plan plays out creates much suspense. Russell is putting not only his own life on the line, but also the lives of his family members.

In Downing’s post-war period, Europe is full of thugs and ex-Nazis and the author does an excellent job in re-creating the look and feel of the times, from bombed-out Berlin to cities in Yugoslavia and Italy. Sometimes the number of characters becomes a bit overwhelming and it is difficult to remember who everyone is. But the important people are clearly defined and Downing’s writing is as always steeped in historical realism. The evolution of a divided Berlin is explained as we see the lives of the people living through it. Tension grows as we read, and even as the conclusion approaches we do not know what will happen to Russell or his family and friends. It is sad to see this wonderful series wrap up, but Downing has written a final thriller that leaves us satisfied in the end.

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

Reviewed by Anne Corey, June 2013

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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