This is the fifth novel in Downing’s series that features World War II era journalist John Russell, and the first that I read, but certainly not the last. And for any other reader introduced to Russell via this book, I assure you it stands on its own and will also leave you hungry for more.
In this entry in the series, the British Russell and his German girlfriend Effi are living in postwar London, when Russell is approached by a Soviet agent, and reminded that he is in the Soviets’ debt for their assistance getting him and his family out of Berlin. They now want him to return, spy for them, and also offer up his services as an agent to the Americans, telling them he will spy on the Soviets for them. Complicated? Yes. Fascinating? Yes.
London after the Second World War is a popular topic, but my sense is that fewer books have been written about postwar Berlin. Downing’s glimpse into this defeated, suspicious city is absolutely eye-opening. Life does not return to normal after a loss of this magnitude. No wonder the Germans, Soviets, and Americans are all spying on each other. Despite the privations of Berlin, it is home to Effi, and Russell reconnects with old friends who take the couple in and create a sense of community. The spying and counter-spying are less compelling than the challenges faced daily, the inhumanity that continued after the war and the surprising moments of humanity. After this book, I need to read the books that came before and will definitely read the books that follow.