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November 1945. John Russell is walking home through the grey streets of postwar London when his old accomplice, Soviet agent Yevgeny Shchepkin, falls into step beside him. Shchepkin informs Russell that his masters in Moscow have decided it's time to pay them back for securing his safe exit from Russia in the last days of the war. Russell must return to Berlin to spy on his former colleagues in the German Communist Party, reporting on any deviation from the Stalinist line. Worse, he is ordered to offer his services to the Americans - in short, to become a double agent on Stalin's payroll. But Russell knows too well how short the life expectancy of a double agent is. Together, he and Shchepkin - who has finally lost his faith in the Soviet utopia - hatch a plan to gain their freedom. The stakes are high, both for Russell and his girlfriend Effi, who has accompanied him to Berlin. In a world fuelled by paranoia and on the edge of a new, 'cold' war, they will need all their wits - and some luck - to survive.
Set in late 1945, Downing's outstanding fifth novel featuring Anglo-American journalist John Russell (after 2011's Potsdam Station) centers on Russell's efforts to fulfill his part of his deal with the devil that extricated his family from Berlin during WWII. NKVD agents approach Russell in London with two demands: first, that he return to Berlin to spy on some Germans to assess their political leanings and gauge the implications for the Soviet Union if Germany becomes socialist; second, that he volunteer to assist American intelligence, in essence becoming a double agent. Russell hopes that acceding to these terms will end his obligations. The stakes rise when his handlers arrange for his lover, actress Effi Koenen, to return to Berlin to appear in a German movie. A violent robbery by the Lehrter Station Gang, former Russian POWs who prefer crime to returning home, places the pair in jeopardy even before they arrive in Berlin. Philip Kerr and Alan Furst fans will be pleased.