By 1939, English journalist John Russell has been living in Berlin for fifteen years. His 11-year-old son Paul is an enthusiastic member of the Hitler Jungvolk, something that saddens Russell but which he would be foolhardy to try to stop. Young Paul lives with Russell’s ex-wife and her Nazi husband, after all, and calls the man “father.” Russell’s longtime girlfriend, an independent-minded film actress, is considering taking the lead role in a propaganda film that emphasizes the folly of women working outside the home. And the Soviets want Russell, a former communist, to write some puff pieces about the good side of life in Nazi Germany for a Soviet paper—they expect reports in person about what he’s really seen and they will pay him well. Russell knows that once started with the hammer-and-sickle crew it will be difficult to draw a line and stop. The Gestapo is also interested in what he sees, as is the British Embassy.
That’s the set-up for Zoo Station, the first book in David Downing’s deservedly popular John Russell World War II spy thriller series, which Soho is now reprinting in paperback format. If you enjoy Alan Furst’s exquisite World War II books, Downing offers up similar fare: seductively atmospheric tales set in a world about to collapse, in which an everyman risks death by defying the Nazis. Both authors leave readers with the impression that many decent Europeans sabotaged the Reich when they could, and that their efforts added up and made a difference—if not in winning the war, at least in saving individual lives. Both authors celebrate human-scaled, isolated acts of courage and decency. I loved the book, and will be reading the rest of the series. Recommended.