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SILESIAN STATION . . Between the covers

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Followers of this website will, hopefully, have read my 1st May review of David Downing’s Wedding Station (click link to visit). It is actually the seventh book in the series, but is a prequel, being set in 1933. I was so impressed by it that I have raided my piggy bank and bought several others. This review, then, is of a book I have bought for pleasure, rather than a freebie from a publisher. Silesian Station was first published in 2008, and is the second in the series. The central character is John Russell, an Anglo-American political journalist. He married (but later divorced) a German woman, and as their son Paul is a German citizen, Russell is allowed to make his home in Berlin. We are in the late summer of 1939. Six years into the Thousand Year Reich. Six months since Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia. Just days away, maybe, from an invasion of Poland?

spines029Russell is a survivor, a man who can usually talk his way out of trouble. Multilingual, and with that all-important American passport, he keeps a wary eye on the features he wires back to his newspaper in the states, but has – more or less – managed to stay out of trouble with the various arms of the Nazi state  – principally the Gestapo, the SS and their nasty little brother the Sicherheitsdienst. Russell fought in the British Army in The Great War, but in its wake became a committed Communist. Although he has now ‘left the faith’ he still maintains discreet contacts with the remaining ‘comrades’ in Berlin. With that in mind, it is unsurprising, perhaps, that he has been manoeuvred into the sticky position where both the German and Russian intelligence services believe that he is working uniquely for them, and he is being used to pass on false information from one to the other.

It’s probably not a bad idea at this stage to do a brief political and strategic summary of how the land lay in the late summer of 1939. Germany and the Soviet Union were – in theory – the best of friends, but divided both geographically and in terms of future intent by Poland. Hitler still smarted from the loss of previously German territory after the Treaty of Versailles, while both he and Stalin had eyes on encroachment, to the east in Hitler’s case and to the west for Stalin. Hitler knows that Britain and France are treaty-bound to protect Poland, but is more worried about the reaction from the Kremlin should he try to retake the former German lands of Prussia.

Back to the more human and personal elements of Silesia Station. Russell has agreed to do a favour for his brother-in-law, and investigate the disappearance of a  Jewish girl, Miriam Rosenfeld, who has been sent by her parents – who own a small farm near Breslau (modern day Wrocław) to live with her uncle in Berlin, for the chillingly ironic reason that the family are among the few Jews left in the area, and they feel threatened. Russell – aided by his film star girlfriend Effie Koenen – start their search, but Miriam seems to have vanished into thin air. Effie is integral to the story. Very beautiful, and a fine actress, it doesn’t hurt that Hitler’s minister for propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, is an avid film buff, and has rubbed shoulders with Effie at premieres of her films, and is apparently a great admirer.

Months later, of course, all these ambiguities were wiped out by the fury of war, but John Russell has one other contradiction to deal with. Another acquaintance, Sarah Grostein is ‘walking out’ with a prominent SS officer who is – clearly – unaware that she is Jewish. When their relationship goes disastrously wrong, Russell feels obliged to pick up the pieces.

Aside from the human dramas, Downing describes with great clarity the fateful days before the Soviets and the Nazis – via the short-lived Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact – agreed to allow each other to live and let live, and how that fateful decision gave Hitler the green light to invade Poland, thus triggering six years of death, terror and mayhem.

Is Miriam Rosenfeld found? Where did she go? Can John Russell and Effie Koenen keep one step ahead of both the SS and the NKVD? Well, the fact that they appear in later books will answer the last question, at least, but you will have a few hours of tense reading a classic piece of historical fiction while you find out how. Silesian Station is published by Old Street Publishing Ltd and is available now.
 

WEDDING STATION . . . Between the covers

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Coming late to a well-established series can pose problems for a reviewer but, happily, this book is a prequel to the six published previously. The series is known as the Station Series, written by David Downing, and featuring the investigative crime reporter John Russell. The titles all take their names from railway stations around Berlin. They are Zoo Station (2007), Silesian Station (2008), Stettin Station (2009), Potsdam Station (2010), Lehrter Station (2012), and Masaryk Station (2013).

Fans of the books will have to excuse me while I paint a quick background picture. It is early 1933, and Hitler has been Chancellor for just a few weeks. We begin just hours after the Reichstag fire, and the SA – Sturmabteilung – are going about their grisly business with renewed vigour. Russell is English, a veteran of WW1 – and a former communist – but due to his marriage (now failed) to a German woman, he can happily say, “Ich bin ein Berliner.

WS coverWhile reporting on the death and mutilation of a young rent boy, Russell is asked by a friend to take on another case, this time on behalf of a senior army officer whose daughter is missing. It is a delicate business, because there is a strong suspicion that Lili Zollitsch has run off with a boyfriend who is an active member of the Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands.

Russell seems to collect mysterious deaths and disappearances like some men collect stamps. Hard on the heels of the Colonel’s missing daughter, he hears that a prominent genealogist has been killed in what seems to be a case of hit-and-run. One of Herr Mommsen’s most popular services had been producing evidence of racial purity – as in no trace of Jewish blood – for his clients. Had he made a rather unfortunate discovery and signed his own death warrant? If this weren’t enough, a well-known astrologer has gone missing – believed permanently – and when Russell investigates via one of Harri Haum’s customers he is astonished when she tells him that in a crystal ball-reading session a few days before the event, the seer had predicting the burning of the Reichstag.

But there is yet more for Russell to deal with. One of the friends of the murdered rent boy contacts the journalist and hands him the dead lad’s diary, in which he has faithfully recorded the names of his clients, as well as intimate physical descriptions. As Russell turns the pages, he finds the names of prominent members of the SA. Now while homosexuality is – along with communism, and being Jewish – a big no-no in the eyes of the Schutzstaffel (SS) it is a different matter in the rival organisation, the SA. The SA’s head, Ernst Röhm along with a good number fellow brownshirts are, as coy newspaper obituaries used to say, “confirmed bachelors.”

The final straw for Russelland one that very nearly breaks the back of the proverbial desert beast of burden – is when a knock on the door of his apartment reveals a young woman called Evchen who, years earlier, was a communist comrade. Not only is she still a party member, she has just shot dead one SA trooper and seriously injured another. And now she seeks shelter. How Russell gets himself out of these various pickles is gripping stuff. Some of the tension is obviously diminished by the fact that we know that the journalist survives to feature in six further books, but it is still a very good read.

We are clearly in Bernie Gunther territory here, and comparisons are inevitable, but in no way negative. This is a compelling read and a chill reminder – if any were necessary – of the gathering storm facing Germany and the wider world in the 1930s. Wedding Station is published by Old Street Publishing. The hardback is available now, and the paperback version will be out on 4th May.

METROPOLIS . . . Between the covers

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Metro1012First up, Metropolis is a bloody good detective story. Philip Kerr gives us a credible copper, he lets us see the same clues and evidence that the central character sees and, like all the best writers do, he throws a few false trails in our path and encourages us to follow them. We are in Berlin in the late 1920s. A decade after the German army was defeated on the battlefield and its political leaders presided over a disintegrating home front, some things are beginning to return to normal. Yes, there are crippled ex-soldiers on the streets selling bootlaces and matches, and there are clubs in the city where the determined thrill-seeker can indulge every sexual vice known to man – and a few practices that surely have their origin in hell. The bars, restaurants and cafes of Berlin are buzzing with talk of a new political party, but this is Berlin, and Berliners are much too sophisticated and cynical to do anything other than mock the ridiculous rhetoric coming from the National Socialists. Besides, most of them are Bavarians and since when did a Bavarian have either wit, word or worth?

The copper is, of course, Bernie Gunther. Enthusiasts have followed his career from its infancy in the Berlin kripo of the Weimar Republic, through the dark days of World War II (accompanied by such luminaries as Reinhard Heydrich and Joseph Goebbels.) We have held our breath in the 1950s as Gunther tries to elude hunters who, mistakenly, have his name on a list of Nazi war criminals. We have been in the same rooms as Eva Peron and William Somerset-Maugham. Our man has led us a merry dance through mainland Europe, Cuba and Argentina but, sadly:

“Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.”

Metro2013Metropolis sees Gunther in pursuit of a Berlin Jack The Ripper who is certainly “down on whores.” Four prostitutes are killed and scalped, but when the fifth girl to die is the daughter of a well-connected city mobster, her death is a game-changer, and Gunther suddenly has a whole new world of information and inside knowledge at his fingertips. He is drawn into another series of killings, this time the shooting of disabled war veterans. Are the two sets of murders connected? When the police receive gloating letters, apparently from the perpetrator, does it mean that someone from the emergent extreme right wing of politics is, as they might put it, “cleaning up the streets”?

As ever in the Gunther novels, we meet real people from the period, exquisitely researched and re-imaged by the author. As well as the actual senior police officers of the Berlin Kriminalpolizei, Kerr introduces us to the artists Otto Dix and George Grosz. Gunther rubs shoulders with theatre folk too, but he is no fan of the singing of Lotte Lenya:

“..the mezzo-soprano could hold a note no better than I could hang on to a hot poker. She was plain, too – I caught sight of her onstage as I made my way up to one of the dressing rooms – one of those thin, pale-faced, red-haired Berlin girls who remind me of a safety match.”

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On the bright side, Gunther’s trip to The Neues Theater (above) is not entirely wasted, as he meets Brigitte Mölbling. He sees:

“..an Amazonian blonde whose perfectly proportioned windswept head lookd like the mascot on the hood of a fast car; she had a cool smile, a strong nose, and eye-brows that were so perectly drawn they might have been put here by Raphael or Titian.”

PKMölbling helps Gunther disguise himself as one of the disabled ex-soldiers, as he reluctantly accepts the role in order to attract the killer who, in his letters to the cops, signs himself Dr. Gnadenschuss. Gunther’s trap eventually draws forth the predator, but not in the way either he or his bosses might have anticipated.

Philip Kerr died on 23rd March 2018 and Metropolis is his final work. Of all the many portraits of Bernie Gunther, which one does he leave us with? Our man is young. He is handsome. His four years in the trenches were brutal, but he survived and he is resilient. The cynicism? If new-born babies feel anything other than hungry or full, cold or warm, wet or dry, then perhaps the infant Bernhard ruefully first opened his blue eyes and gazed on a world which he already knew was full of imperfections and disappointment. But let Bernie have the final word. The entrancing Brigitte ends their relationship, unable to become close to a man who has seen – and will continue to see – so much horror and blood:

“I burned her letter. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t had one before, and I suppose that before my time is up, I’ll have others. Never forget, always replace. That’s the first rule of human relationships. Moving on: this is the important part.”

Metropolis is published by Quercus, and is out on 4th April.

Click the link for more opinion and information about the Bernie Gunther series.

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