I bought this book on a 2 for 3 in Waterstones (so if it was rubbish it hadn't cost me anything) impulse and enjoyed it so much I have just been out and bought the second instalment of what is going to be a trilogy.
It is a mixture of spy novel and exploration of what it must have felt like to be a non-German living in Germany in the immediate run-up to the Second World War. The main character is a journalist with a foreign passport - so the means to escape the Nazis - being simultaneously sought as a spy by Germany, Britain and Russia. He is also, however, a compassionate individual dealing with all sides of the situation and sometimes compromising his ideals to both protect those he cares about and resist the impending crisis he can see looming.
Downing manages through the eyes of this character - an Englishman called John Russell - to create a powerful sense of disorientation and of a shifting moral landscape - while at the same time telling a story which keeps you turning the pages.
Excellent read - highly recommended to both fans of spy novels and those with an interest in how the Nazi (or any other repressive state) could come into being.
on 6 April 2009
I read this book on the strength of it being brought to my attention by Amazon when I was ordering some of Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther novels (the March Violets triple-set).
I have long been fascinated by this period of history - what made ostensibly intelligent and rational people embrace Nazism, either wholeheartedly or by simply tolerating the pervading power of the State machinery in everyday life?
Previous reviewers have noted the lack of set-piece action (though the story itself is taut and believable), but I think the events of this book probably better reflect the reality of the situation, in particular the inability to trust all but a select few with your true thoughts, and the fact that simple kind deeds could leave you in very real danger.
In fact, when compared to Kerr's entertaining Gunther mysteries, Downing's protagonist (John Russell) emerges the much more plausible character. Gunther - particularly by the time we reach The One From The Other and A Quiet Flame - starts to enjoy some outrageous coincidences and good fortune, quite apart from the oddity that he has survived the war despite being on first-name terms with Artur Nebe and Reinhard Heydrich (amongst others).
So in short, a worthwhile and credible read with a good feel for the times. If you want a more action packed but less plausible feel for the same time period, go with Gunther.
on 24 January 2011
I bought this book for my new Kindle in the £1 sale and what a bargain! Having just read a run-of-the-mill novel this was just what I needed to get my teeth into. Downing's descriptions of a pre-WWII Nazi Germany in 1938 leave you feeling like you are actually there with the protagonist John Russell as he tries to earn a living in a increasingly subversive and authoritarian regime that spreads terror and death.
I had no idea that Zoo Station was the first of 4 novels, thankfully I started with the first because I think that they need to be read in order to get the full benefit and richness of the characters and they develop over the story arc.
I would have no hesitiation in buying the following 3 sequels and highly recommend Zoo Station to anybody with a liking for thrillers set admist a clmate of espionage and double-dealing.
If I only had 3 words for this review they would be 'Just buy it'.
on 11 July 2010
This was the first novel, from this author, that I have read. I found it a first class read, mixing fact with fiction seamlessly. Having visited Berlin many times I could almost walk the streets with the characters. I have now read his follow up books (Stettin Station,Silesian Station) and await delivery of the final, Potsdam Station. Had trouble putting it down!
on 22 July 2014
This is the first book that I have read by David Downing. I read it since I also read Alan Furst, Philip Kerr and William Ryan. They all try to put you into the 1930's and 1940's. Unfortunately I would not put Mr Downing up there with these other three writers based on this single book but let me tell you why.
There is no doubt that David Downing knows his history and all sorts of details in Nazi Germany. Everything is correct. If you are familiar with Berlin you will recognize everything he writes about. He is a huge source to tap from if you are interested in Nazi Germany. He is also a good writer and his scenario and the people in it are believable.
The Problem is, it is all very compact. There is almost not a single page that does not tells us about the horror of the Nazi regime or daily life in Nazi Germany. It is as if the story itself is second to his efforts to inform us of how it was. This would be excellent if you have never studied the period or if you want to know more about life under Nazi rule instead of following a spy story set in Germany 1939. The Story is actually suffering and the end is very predictable.
It was worth reading but mostly because the period interests me. A hundred more pages without any mentioning of Jews, Nazis, Hitler etc and focused on the story would have balanced this book much better.
I read David Downing's excellent "Silesian Station" before taking on "Zoo Station," but the latter (being the first in the series so far), didn't suffer by comparison and there was nothing lost in continuity. "Zoo Station" is more of an ambling setup that establishes the political and social environment in Europe in the two years preceding the opening of WWII hostilities in September 1939. Author Downing appears to have done a gargantuan amount of research on the period, including details as minute as street crossings in provincial towns, but working on as grand a scale as the course of diplomatic relations between an increasingly aggressive Nazi Germany and its increasingly nervous, and ultimately unfortunate, neighbors.
Downing's protagonist. Anglo-American journalist, John Russell, is an appealing character trying to navigate a world that is becoming more dangerous for him and his German family every day. With the principal aim of establishing the environment of the period. Russell's day-to-day routine is spelled out in great detail in this story. It's an effective device that gives the reader a palpable sense of what Berlin, Cracow, Prague, etc. were like at the time as well as how ordinary Europeans were living their lives under mounting political and social threat.
There is an excellent plot line here as well. Protagonist Russell reluctantly becomes, after all, a spy and is pushed into some hairy situations that could cost him his head (literally) at the hands of a Nazi executioner. The action in "Zoo Station" is akin to that presented in Alan Furst's excellent books of the same period--building slowly and resolving through dialogue rather than violence. What violence there is in this book comes as background, basically as descriptions of what is happening to German Jews and other Nazi opponents that have been marked for elimination or exile.
Overall, I would give this book a four plus on the Amazon scale. Without a doubt, Downing's John Russell series is a most welcome addition to WWII genre fiction. He has a real talent for credible narrative. Let's hope that there is a sequel to "Zoo Station" and "Silesian Station" in the near future.
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John Russell is a new anti hero for me. My first read if a book by David Downing and I was completely absorbed. The power of words is to take the reader to the place and time in the imagination of the author. I felt as if I were in Berlin, seeing the avenues and extravagantbuildingsfirst hand. I sensed suspicion, hatred, anger and mistrust, particularly towards Jews. I gained painful insight into the minutiae of day to day life in Nazi Germany where Hitler worship was the only acceptable life style. For those without that choice, there were few options.
This tale exposes, in a fictional setting, the facts around Nazi attitudes towards not only Jews, but anyone who failed to meet the Aryan 'model' intellectually or physically. It's a frightening indictment of a nation whose moral compass was defined by one malignant individual and embraced without question by a majority.
I loved the slow and detailed pace in the first part of the book. Characters are introduced and defined by the mundane detail of their daily activities, but in a context that lays the foundations for the latter part of the book. The pace built slowly and inexorably as Russell challenged his own values. I was holding my breath at one point where his false bottomed suitcase was discovered by the Gestapo...
All in all, this is a compulsive introduction to a central character whose conflicting allegiances to Germany and Britain, son and lover, friends and family are thought provoking and plausible. I like the characters, I enjoyed the plot and in terms of edgy historical fiction, Le Carre with a twist, this ticks all the boxes. On the basis of this, I've bought the rest in the series...loved it!
on 21 April 2014
Having devoured all Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther novels and finding myself at a loss as to whether to read them all again or try something of that ilk, we pull into Zoo Station. And pull more or less straight out again, having noticed not very much at all. Respectfully but most strongly disagree with the reviewer who rates Downing above Kerr. Yes, good research and a more or less convincing evocation of Berlin's atmosphere in the early weeks of 1939, but as far as character, plot, tension and credibility goes, Downing is left far behind by Kerr, in my humble opinion. Russell is a dull character with whom we feel very little identification, the plot lurches from pillar to post without ever really engaging us, and hey presto, all of a sudden it's over. Is that it? One is tempted to ask. Truth is, where Kerr wins over pretty much every other crime novelist of his generation (maybe Downing doesn't want to be considered in that genre, in which case he's doing OK), is that he is clearly steeped in the very best tradition of Chandler and Hammett, and his wisecracking but morally deeply compromised character is loveable, funny, surprising and entirely believable. Colour, light and shadow, and a full cast of entirely convincing characters. Downing is 2-dimensional by comparison. Will I be straight on to the other stations with as much alacrity as I followed Bernie? Nope, not a chance.
on 17 May 2011
It's a real page turner, but I have to agree with the comments about the travels round Berlin. I was in Berlin last month and to start with it was quite interesting remembering the S-bahn routes but by halfway I was skimming over the lists of street names. Apart from that it was very enjoyable and I would certainly recommend it.
on 24 September 2013
A wonderful evocation of life in Nazi Germany & its neighbouring states in the build-up to WWII. The characterisation is excellent & believable bringing the history of this dark time to life. It helps to show how a powerful & scheming mind was able to build up hatred in previously reasonable minds - always an object lesson in seeing how a whole nation can be manipulated to the point of no return. Unify your supporters by inventing a dark menace from which the manipulator appears to offering protection, while being the greater threat from within. The self-proclaimed protector of civilization being its greatest enemy.
We also see how Britain & the USA tried to avoid seeing the inevitability of the need to deal with the growing menace.
Brilliantly researched & masterfully presented.
I moved on straight away to the Silesian Station. I was in turmoil wanting to know how the central characters fared in the next volume. Compulsive & hugely satisfying reading.