Wednesday, 12 June 2013

David Downing: Lehrter Station

A couple of years back, I said that Downing's next book would be called Tempelhof Station, but that was based on the slightly flakey logic that the next historical event for Downing to play with around Berlin would be the airlift. Instead Lehrter Station is set in the melancholy winter of 1945, and the aftermath of the Reich's destruction. Which is not so much an event as a massive dose of depression and schadenfreude, and I suppose I should have realised that a writer with Downing's penchant for slow meandering detours through the background of history would have been drawn to it.

1945 Berlin was not a fun place, and Philip Kerr went there a long time ago in A German Requiem, a book I never want to read again. Downing does not drag his heroes as far into despair as Kerr dragged poor old Bernie Gunther, but then in many ways Downing is a much perkier writer than Kerr. His heroes may never get ahead of the game, but somehow they still have a spark of optimism to them in a way that Bernie never did.

When Potsdam Station ended, the war had drawn to a close and John Russell was pretty much on the outs with everyone still standing, so the first order of business for the new book is to find a semi-plausible way to get him back into play in Berlin. Although the books are nowadays being sold with covers which call them "John Russell and Effi Koenen novels", I am coming around to the idea that Downing is actually writing a very long book about Berlin and the characters are just an administrative necessity, due to the marketing problems you'd have if you called each new book "Yet Another Berlin novel". With Berlin in ruins and nothing but bad memories, why would either of them go near the place?

Back they go, however, once again in thrall to at least two different spy agencies, and frantically struggling to stay one move ahead of destruction. What unfolds over the rest of the book is not so much a story as a series of things which happen, rounding out some stories from earlier books and tiptoeing into other ones. But it's all more in the cause of showing the reader the ruins of Berlin, and the ruined lives of the people left there. This is putting Downing up against Alan Furst, who is the 800 lb gorilla of the "stuff happening in Mittel Europa" novel world. And Furst is still better at it. I'm not sure why, though I think that part of it is his realisation that these fragile people drifting through hell couldn't possibly last through it all; each Furst book repeats minor characters and locations, but the central characters run through their fractured journeys in a single book, never to be seen again. There are exceptions to that rule, but Furst seems to run on the idea that nobody's got enough luck to get through more than a couple of life or death encounters, and so there's always a sense of hazard and realism to his characters. Downing, on the other hand, is sort of sunk by the problem that he's got series characters, and so the reader knows going in that the two viewpoint characters can't cop it no matter how bad it looks. Your characters need to be good company to make the reader go on rooting for them, and I don't know that Russell and Koenen are all that and a bag of chips. They're nice people, but my life is full of nice people that I'm happy to ignore on my down time.

Anyhow, there I was hoping for the Berlin airlift, but instead I get black marketeers, the beginnings of the ugly compromises with useful Nazis which became the Gehlen apparat, a modest measure of revisionism about the Soviet occupation of Berlin (sure, they were bastards, but they loved the ballet apparently), and a side shot of the underground railroad for Jews getting out of Europe towards Palestine. Also, plot resolution by Jewish commando, in a four page coda which compresses into almost nothing something which would have made a perfectly serviceable plot for the whole book. Puzzling, that.

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