Masaryk Station (John Russell)
by David Downing
Cover Artist: Mohamad Itani / Arcangel Images
Review by Linda Marie Schumacher
Soho Crime Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9781616952235
Date: 18 June 2013 List Price $26.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Masaryk Station is the sixth and last in a series of novels by David Downing. The first begins in 1939 and features English journalist John Russell. Russell lives in Berlin as do his German ex-wife and son, and his girlfriend Effi. Russell and Effi are anti-Nazi and pro-Jew, but at first do not want to get involved in what is changing around them in Berlin. That all changes as Russell becomes a low-level spy for both the Americans and the Russians, sometimes at the same time. He and Effi both support the Jewish cause.
By Masaryk Station it is 1948, the war is over, Russell has become an American citizen, Berlin is in ruins, and Russell's son, Paul, is all grown up. Russell and Effi are now married and have adopted a Jewish orphan named Rosa. Russell spent the war outside of Germany and Effi went into hiding in disguise and continued to advance the Jewish cause. Downing's novels never were about the plot, but really about the times and how the characters reacted and perceived the changes in the world around them.
Masaryk Station begins in Trieste, Italy, where Russell is working for the Americans as an interpreter for Russian defectors. Russell is still serving as a spy. His involvement has increased, but he is still a long way from James Bond. He manages to advance his own causes through his espionage as well as those of his friend, and now partner, Yevgeny Shchepkin.
Shchepkin is a Russian spy and the Russians think that Russell is a double agent for them. Russell is the converse as an American spy where his employers think Shchepkin is a double agent for them. It is a fine line they both are walking, and they are advancing their own causes and protecting themselves and their families.
Russell is sent on various duties and meets with Shchepkin here and there. Effi is back in Berlin, not really in the resistance any more, but still helping friends when they have trouble with authorities.
The loose but recurring plot line that ties the various story lines together concerns a crime of rape and murder which occurs early in the story. Suspicion and evidence of the crime appear in numerous places, and Russell, Effi, and Shchepkin work together to resolve it and to advance their own families' safety in the process.
The authorities are really the point behind the story. Post-war Berlin is a political mess with different countries in charge of various sectors. The Stalinist or Soviet communism is advancing, and the communist parties in both Berlin and Yugoslavia are butting heads to see if their branch of communism will take power or if the Soviet model with win. Shchepkin and Russell are not interested in seeing the Stalinist model take power.
All the branches of the various national organizations are so confused that they end up arresting their own people and not realizing it. It is all a little hard to follow, but Downing put an acronym index in the front of the book that helps. Someone with a university-level knowledge of the politics of the time may find some suspense in the interactions of the various agencies, but the average reader will not. Honestly, the details are not the point anyway, it's the confusion of the times. It's all the beginning of the Cold War.
What I got most out of Masaryk Station was insight. This time insight into the beginning of the Cold War as I am a child of the Cold War. I was born in the 1960s, and by the time I was aware of the world, it was the early 1970s, and Viet Nam. I served in the US Navy in the 1980s at the peak of President Reagan's 600 ships, and right before the Berlin Wall fell. To me, the Cold War had always been there and Masaryk Station gave me perspective as to how things got started.
In short, I loved Masaryk Station. The plot in interesting, but the real point is the insight into the times. It provided insights and aroused emotions in me concerning my own experiences during the Cold War and helped build some perspective over the world events that I, in my youth, only knew as fact.