I think for sheer atmosphere, bordering on the “surely he can’t have actually been there at the time?” David Downing’s Station series just can’t be beaten. Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther is its equal, but also different. If you want totally immersive impeccable Historical Fiction, this is where you should start.
Hopefully, you will want to read this series, so clicking on the cover, will take you to The Book Depository.
1. Zoo Station (2007)
Englishman John Russell is a member of the foreign press corps in Berlin and a first-hand witness to the brutal machinations of Hitler and the Nazi party in the build-up to war during the early months of 1939. Unlike many of his colleagues, Russell wished to remain in Berlin for as long as possible to be close to Effi, his glamorous girlfriend, and above all to Paul, his eleven-year-old son who lives with his estranged German wife.
When an old acquaintance turns up at his hotel, Russell’s life begins to change. Gradually he is persuaded by a combination of threats, financial need and appeals to his conscience to become a spy – first for the Soviet Union, and then, simultaneously, for the British.
The grim streets, the constant fear and the skin-deep glitter of pre-war Belin – with excursions to Prague, Danzig, London and the Baltic seashore – form a rich backdrop as Russell, a reluctant hero and a saviour for some, treads an ever narrowing line between the Russians, the British and the Gestapo.
2. Silesian Station (2008)
In July 1939 Russell returns to Berlin as the newly-appointed Central European correspondent of an American newspaper. With his communist past, German son and English-American parentage he’s the perfect catch for any of Europe’s warring espionage services – and none will take no for an answer.
Through the long Berlin summer, through trips to Prague, Warsaw and Moscow tracking Europe’s descent into war, Russell seeks to satisfy his secret masters, protect his girlfriend Effi and his son Paul, and retain some sense of his fragile integrity.
And if this wasn’t difficult enough, a friend needs his help in finding the missing Jewish niece of an employee. With a whole continent headed for self-immolation, saving just one person shouldn’t be so difficult…
3. Stettin Station (2009)
Anglo-American journalist John Russell is still living in Berlin, tied to the increasingly alien city by his love for two Berliners: his thirteen-year-old son, Paul, and his actress girlfriend, Effi.
One of a dwindling handful of much-censored journalists, Russell finds himself pushed into serving as a point of contact between the anti-Nazi Abwehr and American intelligence.
Forced to work for both German and American Intelligence, he’s searching for a way out of Germany.
But his real work, as he now sees it, revolves around one crucial question – what fate awaits those Berliner Jews who are now shipped to the East?
Can he escape and take Effi with him?
4. Potsdam Station (2010)
April 1945. Hitler’s Reich is on the verge of extinction. Assaulted by Allied bombs and Soviet shells, ruled by Nazis with nothing to lose, Berlin has become the most dangerous place on earth.
Anglo-American journalist and reluctant spy John Russell is in Moscow, having escaped from Berlin in 1941. Russell’s eighteen-year-old son Paul, born to a German mother, is on the Oder front line, awaiting the Soviets’ final onslaught and the prospect of near-certain death. Inside Berlin, his girlfriend Effi has a Jewish orphan to care for, and the Gestapo on her trail. The advancing Red Army promises liberation, but is also seeking retribution, particularly from German women.
To find and save his son and girlfriend, Russell must reach Berlin no later than the Red Army. But only the Soviets can get him there, and the price of their help is dizzyingly high.
5. Lehrter Station (2012)
November 1945. John Russell is walking home through the grey streets of postwar London when his old accomplice, Soviet agent Yevgeny Shchepkin, falls into step beside him. Shchepkin informs Russell that his masters in Moscow have decided it’s time to pay them back for securing his safe exit from Russia in the last days of the war.
Russell must return to Berlin to spy on his former colleagues in the German Communist Party, reporting on any deviation from the Stalinist line. Worse, he is ordered to offer his services to the Americans – in short, to become a double agent on Stalin’s payroll.
But Russell knows only too well how short the life expectancy of a double agent is. Together, he and Shchepkin – who has finally lost his faith in the Soviet utopia – hatch a plan to gain their freedom.
The stakes are high, both for Russell and his girlfriend Effi, who has accompanied him to Berlin. In a world fuelled by paranoia and on the edge of a new, ‘cold’ war, they need all their wits – and some luck – to survive.
6. Masaryk Station (2013)Europe, 1948. The continent is once again divided: into the Soviet-controlled East, and the US-dominated West.
John Russell and his old comrade-in-espionage Shchepkin need to both find a way out fo the dangerous, morally murky world they have both inhabited for far too long. But they can’t just walk away. If they want to escape with their lives, they must uncover a secret so damaging that they can buy their safety with silence.
In this stunning conclusion to the series, Downing ratchets up the suspense with a superb plot involving psychopathic mass murderers, a snuff movie that leads to the highest ranks of Soviet power, and Russell and his girlfriend Effi’s last ditch attempt to gain freedom.