by David Downing
Published by Soho Press
293 pages, 2007
A Death Before the War
Reviewed by Stephen Miller
You can’t and shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but sometimes you simply cannot help yourself. Picture a grainy black-and-white photograph circa 1940 or so. Three women are in the foreground of the image, two of them in conversation and one standing off by herself. There’s a haze that prevents us from seeing what’s in the background. Smoke? Fog? Dust in the air? Off to the left, there appears to be a Gothic church spire, but it might be something else. A torrent of light streaks across the image, upper right down to lower left, coming from the giant windows overhead. The image appears to be that of a train station, perhaps the old Penn Station in New York City or Victoria Station in London. The scene is sinister and subtle, full of secrets kept and secrets betrayed. Without reading the jacket copy, it’s clear that Zoo Station is a spy novel. And if you like your tales spiced with morally ambiguous characters right out of Graham Greene, this is a train you need to be aboard.
David Downing’s Zoo Station is set in 1939 Germany. Adolf Hitler’s appetite for European dominance is beginning to show, but thus far no other country has been threatened -- at least not outright. The German economy is growing like mad, for which the fascist regime is giving itself full credit. The Führer’s concentration camps have not yet come into existence, but the persecution of Jews is well underway. It’s clear that war is inevitable, and equally clear that Britain has no interest in getting involved. If Hitler can be appeased, perhaps the damage can be controlled, certainly kept to one side of the English Channel.
John Russell is a freelance journalist who’s been living and working in Berlin for the last 15 years. A divorced Brit with an American mother, he has no illusions about what is going on, but like many, he feels powerless to do much of anything about it. His son, Paul, is an active member of the Hitler Youth, and his unwillingness to make his son’s life difficult is of paramount concern to him. Plus, there is Russell’s lover, Effi Koenen, a young starlet who is making a comfortable living appearing in state-sanctioned plays and films filled with pro-Nazi propaganda. Those are two apple carts Russell has no interest in overturning.
But while in Danzig (today’s Gdańsk, Poland) during a lonely New Year’s Eve, Russell is met at his hotel by a mysterious Soviet agent, Shchepkin, who makes a startling proposal: would Russell be willing to write some pro-Nazi feature stories for the leading Soviet newspaper, Pravda? It seems the leadership of the Soviet Union is interested in pursuing a non-aggression pact with the Führer, and these articles could go a long way toward getting the Soviet citizenry ready for such an alliance. The money is good, there’s a reasonable amount of journalistic freedom involved, and for a former communist like Russell, there’s little moral reason to object. Even though this novel’s protagonist knows full well that it’s a very short distance from writing propaganda for the Soviets to spying for them, he accepts the assignment.
Russell lives in a Berlin apartment house, and a fellow tenant is the American journalist Tyler McKinley. An affable sort, McKinley freelances and shows signs of having more than enough money for a sensible person to live anywhere other than pre-World War II Germany. But he’s decided to stay in Germany, at least in part, because of a spectacular story he has uncovered: Hitler’s government is euthanizing disabled children.
Not long after this scene takes place, McKinley suddenly dies -- a suicide, the über-efficient authorities say, but Russell is skeptical. He didn’t seem the type, and he was onto this groundbreaking story that would have destroyed any advances in political respectability for the Nazis. Somehow, Hitler’s henchmen must have found out about McKinley’s investigation and terminated their exposure. In trying to complete the work his acquaintance started, Russell also engages in a dangerous game of trying to help a Jewish family flee Germany before they disappear, while at the same time, helping the Soviets undermine Hitler. In the background of all this activity, are Russell’s son and lover -- how will his activities impact their lives either, with or without him?
Zoo Station is a deft exploration of the moral gyrations that supposedly passive “observers” must negotiate when faced with siding with one form of evil over another. The background of an economically prosperous yet politically bankrupt pre-war Germany works as a cloud overhanging the action and players.
The character of John Russell reminds me in some ways of the Graham Greene heroes often seen in Greene’s “entertainments,” such as The Quiet American and The Third Man. While being efficient at his job and in juggling his competing relationships, Russell at his core yearns for meaning in his life, something beyond being passive against one thing or in favor of something else. He’s a ship without a rudder and is looking for a clear and steady course. The struggle to find this inner peace serves as the spine of Zoo Station.
This new novel, penned by the British author of The Moscow Option (2006), is a quiet but evocative work. It’s a thriller that maintains its suspense through the machinations of character, rather than base-level action set-pieces, and is a marvelous return to cerebral espionage. | August 2007