LA Meets Berlin

LA Meets Berlin

For several years, I’ve enjoyed the taut, entertaining espionage novels written by David Downing. In particular, I love his “Station” series, set in Berlin during the Nazi era and the beginnings of the Cold War. The stories follow the adventures of British journalist and spy John Russell, with each book named after a train station in Berlin: Zoo StationSilesian Station, and so on.

I was surprised when I read that his new book, Union Station, was named for LA’s famous train depot. The story begins in Southern California and only later moves to Europe. I thought it was an unlikely juxtaposition and probably a stretch for the action to straddle LA and Berlin, but, curious, I decided to read it anyway. I’m glad I did.

The story is set in 1953, in the heart of the McCarthy era, when LA experienced its most authoritarian era and, perhaps until recently, its closest brush with fascism. It’s surprisingly effective and thought-provoking to see the LA of that time viewed through the eyes of a character who, in Downing’s previous books, lived with, worked against, and was shot at by Nazis.

By alternating the story between LA and post-World War II Berlin, Downing is able to shed an enlightening and frightening light on LA. Having grown up there, I’ve read many books, fiction and nonfiction, about the city, but Downing’s version of it is foreign, in the truest sense, and shocking, because in some ways it calls to mind aspects of Nazi Germany, from the McCarthy witch-hunts to endemic racism to corrupt local politics.

Inevitably, the story winds up in Berlin, among the Germans who tried, unsuccessfully, to resist being controlled by Moscow. Along the way, Downing presents LA as seen through an entirely different and troubling lens, and his grim vision comes to us in the form of a terrific spy thriller.


Capsule Reviews