The United States and the Soviet Union were allies in World War II. As soon as that war ended, however, it became clear that the two nations would become adversaries in a contest for control of Europe. That contest would center on Berlin.
Lehrter Station opens on December 14, 1943, with an incident on a train whose significance becomes clear only at book’s end. The main story is set in the waning weeks of 1945, with John Russell and Effi Koenen returning to Berlin, he as a freelance journalist and she as an actress. In reality, though, their jobs have been made possible by the NKVD, the USSR’s dreaded state security. They want Russell to work for the Soviets … by offering his services to the U.S.
Russell agrees to do this in order to get back to Berlin and locate family and friends separated by the war. At the same time, however, he reveals the NKVD’s plans to the Americans, who enlist him to double-cross the double-crossers. Russell navigating the contradictory expectations of these rival agencies provides the main plot tension of the book.
But there are other emerging realities. Some of the European Jews who survived the war are emigrating to Palestine. Others are seeking revenge against Nazis who have resumed their normal lives in post-war Germany. The Soviets are snatching up ex-Nazi scientists, but the U.S. wants them, too. And the U.S. seems more than willing to turn a blind eye to criminal activities by ex-Nazis, as long as those activities give them a leg up on the Russians. Figuring out how to help the Jews and hurt the Nazis is another difficult tension Russell needs to resolve.
If you have read the John Russell series to this installment, you know that David Downing has drawn a detailed picture of the streets, parks, and buildings of Berlin—based on what has to be detailed archival research—that Russell inhabits. In Lehrter Station, Russell surveys the ruins. The Berlin he knew and loved is dead, but will it rise again?
There are moments of suspense and heartbreak in this novel, but also moments of joy, as the lost are found and the separated reunited. I love the series, I enjoyed this book, and I look forward to what happens next in Masaryk Station.
David Downing, Lehrter Station (New York: SoHo Crime, 2010).
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