Summer, 1939. British journalist John Russell has just been granted American citizenship in exchange for agreeing to work for American intelligence when his girlfriend Effi is arrested by the Gestapo. Russell hoped his new nationality would let him safely stay in Berlin with Effi and his son, but now he’s being blackmailed. To free Effi, he must agree to work for the Nazis. They know he has Soviet connections and want him to pass them false intelligence. Russell consents, but secretly offers his services to the Soviets instead—not for anything too dangerous, though, and only if they’ll sneak him and Effi out of Germany if necessary.
It’s a good plan, but soon things become complicated. A Jewish girl has vanished, and Russell feels compelled to search for her. A woman from his past, a communist, reappears, insisting he help her reconnect with the Soviets, who turn out to demand more than Russell hoped. Meanwhile, Europe lurches toward war, and he must follow the latest stories—to places where American espionage assignments await him.
In Downing's quiet sequel to Zoo Station, set mostly in Berlin in 1939, British journalist John Russell gets involved in multiple intrigues while working as an amateur spy for the intelligence services of assorted major powers. When Miriam Rosenfeld, a young Jewish woman dispatched from provincial Silesia by her Uncle Thomas, who's Russell's ex-brother-in-law, fails to arrive in Berlin, Thomas asks Russell to help find her. Meanwhile, the Nazis blackmail Russell into passing disinformation to the Soviets by arresting his actress girlfriend, Effi Koenen; he agrees to spy for the Americans in order to get a U.S. passport; and he offers to spy for the Russians if they'll help him leave Europe when the time comes. While these various narrative threads, in particular Rosenfeld's disappearance, do generate suspense, thriller fans should be prepared for a dearth of exciting action scenes. Full of period detail, this novel effectively captures life in the police state of Berlin on the brink of war.