Stettin Station

STETTIN_STATION_MED‘There was no doubt about it – two years into the war, the Third Reich was beginning to smell.’ It’s this line, perhaps, that elevates David Downing’s ‘Station’ series above the run of historical and spy fiction. Like Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four, he contrasts the pure and glittering totalitarian dream with the general compromise, inconvenience and sheer dirt of daily life. Totalitarianism pulls reality in different directions, but reality pulls back. Downing’s protagonist, reporter John Russell, has to travel all over occupied Europe to perform various missions on behalf of the Nazis and the Resistance but his progress is frustrated by undrinkable coffee, coils of red tape and late, stinking, crowded trains.

Russell is an American foreign correspondent living in Berlin during the buildup to World War Two. He has a German girlfriend, the actress Effi Koenen, and is a weekend dad to his fourteen-year-son, who is becoming an ardent Hitler Youth. If that wasn’t complicated enough, his reports to the world outside the Reich have to become more and more subtle and contrived as the Nazi state grows in zealotry and power. (Downing’s latest installment, Stettin Station, has a lovely Grub Street feel to it with cynical antifascist journos ridiculing the Nazi press conferences in between drinks.) In a quest to arrange eventual escape Russell ends up working for three different intelligence services, playing them off against each other.

As with most series books, you have to read from the beginning to appreciate the momentum, and Downing does it better than most. Food becomes scarce. People start disappearing. You can practically hear the sirens. The rising tension is best illustrated through the character of Effi, an accomplished actress whose state-sponsored films become more and more political and disturbing. It’s a brilliant study of propaganda and captures the general tone of the series: millions of lives held in the palm of a hand that is slowly curling into a fist.

Intelligent, subtle and genuinely thrilling, Downing’s ‘Station’ series combines great storytelling with a street-level portrait of a society at war.

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