Monday, 11 April 2011

Potsdam Station: David Downing

David Downing has a whole train station thing going on, with all four of his novels to date being named after various stations around Berlin. It's beginning to seem a little forced, though I'll stick my neck out here and say that the next one will be called Tempelhof Station.

It's tempting, this late at night, to call Downing a poor man's Alan Furst, since he's writing low key novels about intrigue around the time of the second world war. But Downing is much more focused than Furst, and while he's not the writer that Furst has proven, he's still capable of hammering together some compelling characters. Furst is the better stylist, and has a particular knack for putting together a resonant character with a few well chosen phrases. It's perfectly fair to say that there aren't any bit players in Furst's work, partly because the whole opus is ABOUT bit players, people around the edges of the huge action. Furst wants to show us what the twilight struggle meant to the people who never got written up afterwards.

Downing is playing a different kind of long game, trying to flesh out what it might have been like for the people of the time to grapple with the moral collapse of Germany, and what it might have cost individuals to try to maintain some decency in the face of it. All four novels to date have revolved around the same small cast of characters, and indeed the small cast of characters revolves around one pivot, John Russell. Although the latest in the books is marketed as a John Russell and Effi Koenen novel, the reality is that the sequence began with John Russell and he's still the engine of it.

The other big difference, thematically, is that Downing is writing about the big stuff; in earlier books Russell has wrestled with trying to get the word about the impending slaughter of Germany's Jews, and in this book one of the plot drivers is him being roped into Soviet efforts to get hold of German atom bomb secrets (given Germany's actual track record of producing atom bomb secrets, they'd have been as well off going after Homer Simpson's nuclear safety tips, but it's entirely credible that in 1945 the Soviets wouldn't have known that and would have been looking for every angle they could find).

Because Downing's books are about one guy and his friends and family and what happens to them, they're oddly disposable. Once I've found out where the latest book as taken things, I don't feel the need to read it again. With Furst I know that at some point, weather permitting, I'm going to be able to go back to the books and read them for the simple pleasure of character and incident, but the more tightly plotted Downing books don't have the same re-read value.

This is not to say that they're not solid work. They're very solid. One of the things I like is the way that Russell never really gets ahead; as close as he ever gets to victory is to survive to the next crisis. He's continually pulled between the German, English, US and Russian secret services, each trying to use and manipulate him with little heed for his survival, and in each book he just barely manages to play them off against each other for long enough to lurch into temporary safety. By the end of Potsdam Station, he's managed to pull off another one of these dodges, but the stakes keep getting higher and if there's a fifth book, Russell's going to be caught up in the Cold War in really awkward ways. My own betting is that the next one is going to unfold during the Berlin blockade, with a big side plot. But it's going to be a while before we see that.

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