I’m thinking it might well be possible that you either like David Downing’s John Russell novels, or you don’t. I don’t know why, but I would imagine there isn’t a half-way house here.
I do like them, very much indeed. I’ll admit that, on the face of it, it sometimes feels like nothing much actually happens. But that’s ‘nothing much’ if you are expecting a war-time, cloak and dagger, murder mystery, spy cross and double cross novel, in the vein of Len Deighton, Alistair Maclean or Douglas Reeman, perhaps.
Nothing wrong with those of course, but then a book like Stettin Station (and David Downing in general), doesn’t need to be one of those. It’s much more than that by, on the surface at least, having much less of all that.
In Stettin Station the third of the John Russell novels, we’ve now reached 1939 (I’m trying to read these in chronological order, I think that’s probably the best way to do it). Our ‘hero’, our main character, guide and narrator really, John Russell, has returned from a trip to the USA and is now Central European correspondent for one or more American newspapers. Amongst other things. As we know, he has a German son, from a previous marriage, and is of English-American parentage. The Germans take advantage of his various connections, commitments and knowledge and force him into working for them – spying on the Russians. Who also get Russell to work for them, spying on the Germans. Both sides seem to know he is working for the other side. It all means, that one way or another, Russell can travel, more or less unhindered, throughout Germany and much of Eastern Europe. He sees what is happening to the eastern countries annexed by the Germans, and he gets a very good idea of what their future might be under the Nazis. In the midst of witnessing this inexorable slide into war and more, he also gets involved in trying to track down a friend’s Jewish niece. Just by being a decent guy. But it leads him and girlfriend Effi, into a situation where they find they need to put their lives on the line.
How can I put it, the sense of what I get from these books? Of course, they are beautifully written, perfectly paced, full off nuance and flavour, and an absolute pleasure to read. But there’s more. More subtlety. I think it is the environment around John Russell and through which he tries to weave his way, which gives the ‘excitement’ to his story. He is, despite all the mentions above of ‘spies’ and travel and so on, a reasonably ordinary man not doing a whole lot more than trying to be a decent reporter, a good father and a loving boyfriend. His being these things and being there in the middle of the build-up to the world-wide catastrophe that was the Nazis and World War II, is what makes the stories so fascinatingly un-put-downable. I think what the John Russell novels boil down to, is that they are a written ‘snapshot’ of this most important, traumatic time. Just being alive and in the middle and trying to find an ordinary path through, is enough to make anyone’s story an incredible one. If things like this hadn’t actually happened, you wouldn’t believe it, if someone made it up. Incredible.