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Wednesday, November 13, 2013


A Review of David Downing's STETTIN STATION

David Downing's third volume in the John Russell series is an improvement over the other Downing book reviewed here at Berlin Noir Reviews but that's not saying much. Set in Berlin a month before the Pearl Harbor attack, the first cracks in the 1000-year Reich are just starting to show as the city is being bombed by the British and the Russian campaign has taken a turn for the worst. Everyone is wondering if the US will enter the war and, soon, the answer to that question would make itself felt with cataclysmic results.

And yet a tenuous optimism struggles to persist. The Nazis are busy being Nazis, journalists from around the world are spoon-fed what they need to know and forbidden to report what they've find out on their own as the city holds its breath.

Although the novel reads better than SILESIAN STATION, it suffers from the same shortcomings. The plot centers around John Russell's attempt to evade the Gestapo while working for the NKVD and the Abwehr at the same time. If this seems familiar, it's because this is the same plot as SILESIAN STATION. Let me clarify. As a series, the books do not appear to be stand alone adventures and Russell's walking of the razor's edge carries over from one book to the next.

In STETTIN STATION, Russell and his lady-love, an actress named Effi, are soon convinced the time has come to leave Germany together before he gets thrown out and must leave Effi behind. Goebbels is not about to let one of the shining lights of his propaganda moving making machine just walk away and Russell is accused of espionage so a simple getaway is not going to happen. A considerable portion of the book is dedicated to showing us how Effi becomes disillusioned with her job. Set against the impending entry of the US and building tension in Berlin as a result, this plot line hardly seems to matter and fails to captivate.

Also, the book is far too talky. With all of the tension in the air, there's not much actually going on. The characters move from place to place, talking about what they must do to survive and what the future holds. Even the "escape" provides days in hiding where more chatter about their plight can be related as opposed to actual action. There are spurts of action toward the end, but STETTIN STATION is no thriller. The prose is sparse, uninspired and devoid of what John D. MacDonald called "unobtrusive poetry". And there is no resolution.

Historical details are plentiful and help to create a sense of Berlin under the Nazis but they fail to totally immerse the reader. They put a frame around the plot and seem authentic but occasionally act only as necessary window dressing for the next conversation - a photograph of a delicious meal we are detached from.

This lack of resolution to important plotlines will also leave readers gritting their teeth. Downing expects readers to be on board for the whole series and the fate of some characters are left to the next book just as the start of STETTIN STATION carried over story elements from the previous installment in the series. Given Downing's dull plotting and flat prose, that's a tall order for readers as the series currently runs six volumes. As a series it begs to be read in order so reader should keep that in mind before attempting to dive in.

Summing up, I enjoyed STETTIN STATION slightly more than I did SILESIAN STATION. So far this series can be filed in the 'take it or leave it' category. Nothing dismal yet nothing to get excited about either. I can't say I'm enthusiastic for the remaining novels but I can hope the slow moving plot eventually resolves itself with some satisfaction and enjoyment. There's nowhere to go but up for the John Russell series.

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