Zoo Station (2007) is David Downing’s first novel featuring John Russell. Russell is an Anglo-American freelance journalist living and working in Berlin in the early months of 1939. A former Communist with a loathing for the Nazis, Russell remains in Germany in order to be close to his adolescent son, Paul, who is a native German, as well as Effi, his German girlfriend who is an actress.
Set in Berlin in the first two months of 1939, Zoo Station occurs just prior to the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia. It chronicles Russell’s efforts to earn a living as a journalist without telling the hard truths of Nazi rule that would get him kicked out of the country … or worse. Two of those hard truths include Nazi abuse of Jews and the disabled, both of which figure into the book’s plot.
Murder further complicate Russell’s life. The murders are those of a colleague working on a story that will expose the Nazis’ eugenics program and of a Jewish doctor whose children Russell is tutoring. For the sake of his safety, Russell should say and do nothing about either, but his conscience won’t allow him to stay on the sidelines.
And neither will the intelligence services of Russia (who remember that he was once a Party member), Germany (who know the Russians want to use him), and England (who expect him to serve king and country in a foreign land). Each of them gives him a specific task. Performing them makes his already complicated life even more so.
Will the truth about the Nazis come out? Will Russell protect his friends and sources? Will his spymasters be the end of him? Read the novel and find out.
Zoo Station excels at describing the Nazi menace in pre-war Germany, as well as the moral complexities its residents faced every day. Downing is particularly good at portraying the tensions Russell experienced—between staying in or leaving Germany, between being a journalist but skirting the real story, between saving the damned and playing it safe. You know you’re reading a good novel when you like the protagonist, worry about his wellbeing, and keep turning the page to find out what happens next.
That said, I wouldn’t describe Zoo Station as a page-turner in the same way I would use that word of a Jack Ryan or Jack Reacher story. Compared to wheels-within-wheels plots of Tom Clancy’s novels or the kinetic pacing of Lee Child’s, Downing’s plot is simple and pace leisurely. This doesn’t mean the novel is bad, but if you’re looking for action and adventure, this book isn’t for you.
Even so, I enjoyed Zoo Station and plan to read the next novel in the series—Silesian Station. I want to know whether John Russell survives the war. For me, that’s the sign of a good series.
By the way, I read Downing’s 2021 prequel, Wedding Station, which takes place in 1933. You can read my review here.
David Downing, Zoo Station (New York: Soho Press, 2007).
P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.