By David Downing
Soho Crime, June, 2013 ($26.95)
Reviewed by Sam Waas
Spy stories have been around forever, popular for at least a century. We relish a good tale of espionage, from the rather fanciful James Bond books to the more measured and structured John le Carré novels about spymaster George Smiley.
MASARYK STATION is the sixth in the John Russell series, intricate and carefully plotted novels about a double agent who's balancing the Soviets against the US during the postwar era, primarily within a divided Germany and fractured Berlin, working each side of the crowd and trying to please all his "runners."
Russell embodies the authentic life of the agent. He takes on small errands, helps manage informants, and generally attempts to muddle through his assignments. He often questions his ostensible allegiance to either side and struggles with his conscience to maintain a semblance of honor, if not to his clients, at least to himself.
This time, Russell finds himself stuck in Trieste, stretched unduly between his two cold-war spymasters and greatly missing his wife and family in Berlin.
In a parallel story line, Russell's wife, German actress Effi (her stage name) is pondering offers from the Soviet-controlled East Germans to star in a blatantly propagandistic film versus a tempting contract from the Americans (actually the CIA) to work in a promising radio drama series. And, of course, she's unwillingly drawn into covert and shadowy consequences.
Author David Downing provides us with great insight into the postwar German world, the stumbling economy, rival factions (each of whom want a newly risen Germany as ally), and the everyday human trials that beset people who lived in this difficult time.
Personalities are extremely well drawn, and even minor characters seem real. It's a pet peeve of mine, authors whose characters all use the same syntax and vocabulary, but this is thankfully not the case here. Dialogue is superb, well shaped, with each character having a unique voice. Such attention to language can add vibrancy to a novel.
There does seem a hesitancy in the narrative, however. When there's dialogue, it's crisp and energetic. But descriptions of events are somewhat flat and lifeless by comparison. A rousing gunfight and narrow escape, a bloody murder scene, and other aspects of spycraft are told in a strangely detached manner, as if someone were talking about grocery shopping or riding the bus.
I don't know whether this is intentional, but I suspect it is. Mr. Downing is too clever a writer to abandon his colorful dialogues and drain the energy from his narrative. My guess is that he wishes to imbue a matter-of-fact tone to the story, where shocking acts are considered mundane by the protagonists, and therefore described this way. If so, the novel falls a bit short in this aspect. Similarly brutal scenes are also given an aloof treatment by John le Carré yet the latter author still conveys electricity to his readers.
Such is nevertheless a minor point, and it may simply be my own personal filtering system, as I prefer a more graphic tone in my books. And consequently it should not dissuade espionage fans, especially those who favor the cold war era, from enjoying novels in the John Russell series. I recommend MASARYK STATION.
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