Thursday, July 21, 2016

Review of Masaryk Station by David Downing (2013, Old Street)

Berlin, 1948. John Russell is working for both the Russians and Americans, both believing he’s a double agent.  His wife, Effi, a pre-war film star is similarly caught between the movie and radio industries of the former allies.  As the Soviets close the noose around Berlin in an effort to encourage the other three Allied powers to leave, Russell seeks a way to extricate himself, along with his family and his Russian handler, Shchepkin, from his predicament before his duplicity is discovered.  However, the Americans have other plans for him, sending him to Trieste to debrief Russian defectors and help run ratlines for war criminals who oppose communists in the new Yugoslavia and Ukraine, and to Belgrade and Prague to gather intelligence.  Eventually an opportunity presents itself, a secret so potentially explosive that it will mean freedom for silence.  First though Russell has to journey into enemy territory to gather the physical evidence, then Shchepkin has to negotiate their safe passage and future, neither of which are straightforward.

Masaryk Station is the sixth and final book in the John Russell and Effi Koenen ‘station’ series, which charts the couple’s lives from 1939 to 1948, most of it spent in Berlin.  Russell, a former communist, worked as an American journalist, before becoming a full-time US and Russian double agent.  Pre-war Effi was a German movie star before joining the underground, helping to smuggle Jews out of war-torn Germany and has now resumed her career.  In this instalment they are back in Berlin with their adopted daughter, Rosa, and living close to Effi’s sister, Zarah; Russell’s German son now working in London.  Russell senses that his espionage work is becoming ever more perilous and the situation in Berlin is putting Effi under-pressure.  As with the previous books, Russell is shuttled around Europe, visiting Trieste, Belgrade, Vienna and Prague, getting into various scrapes as he looks for an escape route.  And he’s still in cahoots with Shchepkin, his Russian handler, who is also looking for a way out of Stalin’s regime. Effi meanwhile has her own, more local adventures.  As well as tell the central tale, Downing uses the narrative to set a wider context of Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and East Germany after the war, the rat lines used to smuggle Croatian war criminals out of Europe, and the lead-in to the Berlin airlift.  The plot is a bit of a slow burner and relies on a couple of plot devices, though these give a glimpse into the plight of those caught behind the iron curtain and the doubts of German communists realising that the Soviets have an iron grip.  Nonetheless, it’s an interesting read, picks up pace and tension towards the end, and does a nice job of closing out what is a fine series, with two strong lead characters.

1 comment:

Charles Gramlich said...

I'll have to look for the first in this series.