Thursday, July 28, 2011

{review} downing & cantrell & 1930s' berlin

David Downing Zoo Station (2007)
Rebecca Cantrell A Trace of Smoke (2009)

Zoo Station A Trace of Smoke (Hannah Vogel Novels)

These books are a natural match for a review: both are set in Berlin in the 1930s; both feature journalist protagonists; both deal with the moral ambiguities involved in trying to survive - and save one's loved ones - under the Nazi regime; both have a really solid 'feel' for the physical environment of the city; and both are the first books in their projected series.

John Russell is the journalist 'hero' of Zoo Station (the books in the series take their names from Berlin train/U-Bahn stations). It is 1939 and it is becoming increasingly difficult for foreign journalists to remain in Germany, let alone to report with any degree of freedom. Russell has other problems - he is English but he is tied to Berlin by the presence of his son (who now lives in the city with his German mother and stepfather) and his lover Effi, an actress. His life is about to become even more complex as he is recruited by the Russians to turn his hand to a spot of propaganda that soon segues into espionage. Simultaneously he is trying to help a Jewish family escape persecution and investigate what hot story had led to the brutal murder of an American journalist colleague. And then his own countrymen attempt to get in on the act… Russell's Berlin is gritty, brutal and resonant with veristic historical detail. His characters come memorably to life and there are many satisfactory twists and turns, and plenty of tension and menace. This was a very good example of this genre.

Downing's interest in the fate of children in Nazi Germany forms a link with Rebecca Cantrell's A Trace of Smoke. Her protagonist is a German, Hannah Vogel. Vogel has been living a miserable and impoverished life since the end of the First World War, in which she lost her fiancé. It is now 1931 and things remain grim for Hannah and the people of Berlin. The Depression has brought terrible hardship and suffering and the rise of the Nazi party is beginning to curtail personal freedoms. This is especially true for a woman who is perceived to be taking a man's job (under a male pseudonym she is the crime reporter for the Berliner Tageblatt) and not conforming to a womanly stereotype. On a trip to the police station for a story she is confronted with a photo of her brother in the Hall of the Unnamed Dead, and the shallow control that she has on her world begins to unravel. Her brother Ernst was a cross-dressing homosexual nightclub performer and it seems that he may have been mixed up with a prominent National Socialist (this is, obviously, before the great purges against homosexuals from 1933). And who is Anton, the underfed street urchin who appears on Hannah's doorstep, claiming that she is his mother and 'Ernst' his father? Cantrell is good at dropping tantalising little historical clues in her narrative that might alert the historically cued-up reader to what is going on here. She is also good on recreating the atmosphere of the Berlin nightclubs and stores of the era.
I glanced out the window at the automobiles passing us. It felt strange to be in an automobile. Decadent.
"You shouldn't buy from the Jews," Wilhelm said. "Not when so many German storekeepers are going hungry."
"And what of the Jewish ones? Do they not need to eat?"
"They will find a way," Wilhelm said. "They always do."
"Are you a warrior?" Anton asked. His grip on my hand loosened.
"Yes," Wilhelm answered with a smile.
"No," I said at the same moment.
"I wear a uniform," Wilhelm explained, ignoring me. "And I am part of a unit. We are trying to restore Germany to greatness."
"Regardless of the cost." I pulled Anton closer to my side.
"There is always a cost."
My marker of quality with books set in this era is how they match up against what I consider to be the be-all and end-all of the genre, Philip Kerr's 'Bernie Gunther' novels. And? Both of these 'first' novels are very good. I will definitely continue the Downing 'Station' series but personal taste will probably not lead me any further with Cantrell's series. This is not a comment on the quality of her book in any sense, as I found her story-line fascinating and her evocation of the era really fine (her writing is on occasion a little stilted - an effect, I think, of her preference for short sentences). I just couldn't warm to her precociously lovable child mini-hero who, I note, appears in the next book. That's just child-loathing old me, though.

Rating: Downing 8/10; Cantrell 6/10.

If you liked this… you MUST READ PHILIP KERR. Genius. Start with the Berlin Noir trilogy or you'll be completely lost later. I've got the next two Downings lined up, Silesian Station and Stettin Station.

Berlin Noir: March Violets; The Pale Criminal; A German Requiem 

Silesian Station    Stettin Station


  1. I've had Philip Kerr on my list for some time. Sounds like I should move him up; I love this sort of book. How does he compare to Alan Furst, in your opinion?

  2. I've only read one Furst (Spies of Warsaw) so I'm not the best judge, but Kerr's eye for detail in his settings, complexity of plot (esp. the moral complexities), and distinctive 'voice' (well, not 'distinctive' really: a bit Philip Marlowe-like) win for me. Also there's lots of interplay between fiction and fact, which I always like.


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