Search This Blog

Friday, March 28, 2014


A Review of David Downing's Zoo Station

David Downing's Zoo Station kicks off the John Russell series, which now stands at 5 volumes. It's just turned 1939 when the novel opens and sabres are rattling. Russell, an Anglo-American journalist living in Berlin, plies his trade with his girlfriend movie star and son along to round his character out. He's a former Communist party member, a veteran of WWI with a desire to do the right thing. All the ingredients for a great Berlin Noir thriller.

Except ZOO STATION isn't. Thrilling, that is.

Downing does an exceptional job of recreating the sights and sounds of Berlin in 1939, only he does it a little too well and the novel begins to read like a travelogue. If you're a fan of books that come to a complete halt for descriptive details the reader can wallow in, then you will love ZOO STATION. If you're looking for an edge-of-your-seat adventure, look elsewhere.

Russell is going about his business when he is contacted by Soviet spies asking him to write a series of articles covering the Reich and the countries around the Germany. The idea is that if he were to fall across any sensitive information, that he will pass it on to the Soviets in exchange for the comfortable sum they will pay him for the pieces. The Nazis get wind of this deal and get him to "volunteer" to report to them on anything he might learn from the Soviets. The British learn of this and strike the same deal.

Sure, if you're a fan of spy fiction, your mouth is watering. Well, here's a napkin, stop drooling. The novel unfolds this tale at a glacial pace. Russell goes from one place to the next and we are given detailed descriptions of how he got there, what he ate, what he saw, who he met, and that's about it. He teaches English to the daughters of a Jewish family preparing to emigrate. He witnesses the launching of the Bismarck, hears Hitler gives speeches, observes Nazi cruelty and so on but none of these things affect the plot in any way. Russell writes his articles, goes to games with his son, beds his girlfriend every time they meet, then listens to her complain about the German film industry. All very slice of life, all very well presented, all dull as dishwater.

There are no thrills, no chills and your behind will stay firmly planted well back on your seat. The novel suffers from too many things happening around the characters and not too them. The result is a read rich in period detail and commendable for meticulous research but, ultimately, boring.

I strongly recommend ZOO STATION for the historical aspect, but not for the plot. If you're in the mood to visit Berlin, circa 1939, from the safely of your armchair, then this novel will scratch you right where you itch. If you're looking for an engaging thrilled amidst a bygone setting, you will be disappointed. ZOO STATION is a slow read on a rainy Sunday and that's about it. Also, you'll have no trouble falling asleep if you park this on on you bedside table for night time reading.

No comments:

Post a Comment