Spy Novel Review – Zoo Station by David Downing

This is a colorful spy story that has fans of the genre on either side of the fence. For some, it’s a deep thinking book, a thoughtful thriller. For others its hackneyed and bland. I lean to the side of the spectrum that enjoyed the book, and this might be colored a bit by coming off reading a couple of shallow but speedy Dennis Wheatley spy thrillers. A lot of slow and moody books can seem like glistening gems against a rip-roaring Wheatley adventure.

But Zoo Station is moody. It is thoughtful. It was filled with subtle turns that end up being big shifts in the story. There is a sense of disquiet in many of the scenes that is simply noted, but not stated. Like a Giorgio de Chirico painting, there is an undertone of uneasiness that one can’t quite identify. I like that. Those are literary scenes I love.

Opening in Danzig but set in Berlin in early 1939, the tension in Germany leading up to WWII was present, but subdued. It was thicker in the surrounding nations. However subtle it was, the reader gets to feel the sense of anxiety mixed with denial among the various average citizens, like the days leading up to a hurricane’s landfall (we’re coastal folks here, this is a good analogy). Many live in denial until it’s too late, and the storm is upon them with alarming speed. Later, the neighbors all remark with an air of self-satisfaction, “They should have seen it coming and left like we did.” One man is the wise, the other the fool, and all that manages to set one apart from another are events out of their control. Decision making and foreseeing the future is never so black and white, and a man’s heart is moved by powerful undercurrents. The head knows, the heart deceives.

John Russell, a British citizen journalist working in the Reich as a freelancer, is initially in this haze of indecision. After all, he reasons, he has an ex-wife, Ilse, and an 11 year old son, Paul, in Berlin. He is a beloved son who he desperately hopes can weather the indoctrination of the Hitler Youth. His girlfriend, Effi, is a film actress, is a German semi-star. To flee the storm now is to leave his loved ones in peril, to stay is to remain in peril. As part of his coping, he sets himself to answering a friend’s favor – to aid a Jewish family in their bid for flight. This adds yet another layer of obligation and loyalty into his already difficult life.

As an old 1920s communist – a Red before the ‘useful idiots’ realized that Red was synonymous with blood – Russell has contacts in all major ideologies of the day. But because he’s a British citizen, German resident, former communist, and a man with a need to make some cash, he’s on everyone’s radar. Approached by the Soviets to do them some “favors,” he sees money in it, and a chance to stick it to the Nazis. His articles for the Soviet press are plausibly pro-German human interest stories, but there is more to it than that. There’s always more to it. Once into the Soviet system, there is no way out but to be expended, a true “human resource.” Such a terrible term, “human resources.” The virtuous side of humanity still insists on calling their workers “personnel.” But back to the review…

As Nazi horrors are becoming more evident, the will to do something grows. Russell witnesses a few violent outbursts first hand. He watches the slow creep of anti-Jewish rules, customs and laws as they restrict whole families and communities into isolation. The ones who esteem this story as plainly obvious to a fault must have missed the subtle comments, shifts of the eye, words not stated, and awkward looks peppered in the Jewish thread of the tale.

What is predictable is that a British journalist in Berlin writing articles about the people of Germany for the Soviet press is going to raise some eyebrows. Russell is approached by the Gestapo and the Germans find him a to be a useful person as well. Then there is the homeland, and British Secret Services appeal to Queen and Country, and press Russell into service as a useful source of info. So there’s the triangular political web, the world of playing Tyrant against Tyrant, checking in with the Queen’s men, all under the added obligations to his family and friends. The story is a real emotional tug-of-war.

Through it all, we see Russell develop a sense of duty to oppose the Nazi machine in whatever way he can, without risking his loved ones. The thoughts of a troubled man, pulled by loyalty, love and fatherly devotion, are believable. The story paints a picture of a man stumbling into espionage, and the spy-world is just as those who have experienced it describe it – boring and dull, with moments of heart-pulsing tension.

A Goodreads reviewer, who’s review was thoughtful and precise, has determined that the novel is not very subtle. He thinks that Downing treats Nazi Germany in a far too obvious fashion. I don’t see the charge so clearly, even having been a student of the era and of history in general. I do have the benefit of knowing the historical future from the perspective of the characters at least, and that is a challenge with any historical novel. But I found the story itself packed full of quiet subtlety with regard to a man’s inner struggles. There are lots of insinuations, slight inferences and clues dropped along the way pointing inward to the workings of a man’s heart. I would have missed these had I never been a father or had I been my young, foolish self.

I do not know enough of European customs or geography to agree with some who rank Downing as being a bit off on some of his cultural quirks, but the cities and towns, bars and hotels, rooms and trains, all had the makings of an environment that I would expect in a historical novel. When you can smell the mildew, beer, onions, and old musty sheets, the scene is successful, atmospheric and colorful.

I have a habit of looking up locations and place names on Google earth, despite most of Berlin being reduced to rubble and re-built. Gaining a sense of place and geographic orientation is helpful. The story opened in Danzig, so my first examination was the geography of moden day Gdansk, and I recommend such references to any reader of historical fiction. A sense of the land, the major landmarks, the coastline, the railroads (which are often little changed), and the flavor of the climate is a useful addition to the descriptions in the book.

I was sufficiently pleased with the book, and now invested in the characters enough, to begin the next story in the series. Out of a scale of one to ten, I’d place it at 7.5.

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