Thursday, November 15, 2012

Crime Fiction: Lehrter Station by David Downing

A classic cat-and-mouse game -- except it’s no game. David Downing’s latest novel, Lehrter Station (Soho Crime), chronicles days full of promise, punctuated by nights full of peril, in a nation emerging from war and pulled in many directions at once.

November 1945. World War II has ended, and people on both sides of the conflict struggle to put the events of the previous five years behind them and rebuild their lives. In London, journalist and freelance spy John Russell is on the move again, trying to piece together the remains of his own life with his German girlfriend, the actress Effi Koenen. But his plans take an unexpected turn when he is tracked down by Yevgeny Shchepkin, a Soviet NKVD agent he has worked with in the past, and who lays claim once more to his clandestine services. Russell had made a Faustian bargain to secure his family’s safety, based on his promise to work for Moscow again sometime in the future, and now that bill has come due.

So Russell returns to Germany with Effi, but not before striking a deal with the Americans to work as a double agent. Aware of his previous dealings with the Russians, the Americans are skeptical: where do Russell’s real loyalties -- if he has any -- lie?

For her part, Effi hopes to revive her stalled acting career in post-war Germany, but like her partner, her wartime past dogs her, and she must wrestle with the occupation powers to prove she was not a Nazi collaborator. Neither of these characters, though, is prepared for the tensions that are emerging between the occupying powers, or for the shadowy culture of post-war Germany on the street level, where deceit and treachery are the order of the day. Russell will weave his way between black-marketers and refugees on the run, European Jews headed for a new homeland and ex-Nazis also scurrying for the safety of a new life. It is a rich storytelling mixture, and reveals the full measure of the turmoil of war.

Lehrter Station effectively captures the trauma of a defeated and dislocated people, some of them good, some bad, all trying to make their way in an uncertain world. Relying heavily on the back story of Downing’s four previous novels in this series, Lehrter Station is an evocative, penetrating account, impeccably researched, revealing the author’s trademark meticulous attention to detail. It will appeal to fans of serious fiction about the chaotic days following the end of the Second World War, as well as to those simply in search of a cracking good read. ◊

Jim Napier is a crime-fiction reviewer based in Quebec. His book reviews and author interviews have been featured in several Canadian papers as well as on such websites as Spinetingler Magazine, The Rap Sheet, Shots, Reviewing the Evidence and Type M for Murder. Napier also has an award-winning crime-fiction site, Deadly Diversions.

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