|Journey into Fear|
It is a truth universally acknowledged, to paraphrase Jane Austen, that after a certain age the phrase, “they don’t make them like they used to,” enters one’s vocabulary. Material goods of all kinds, favorite foodstuffs, athletes, movies, political figures are all set against the scale of nostalgia and found wanting. Thrillers, too.
When I started writing, one of my idols was Eric Ambler, the god of suspense. Knowledgeable, skillfully plotted, and free of stylistic affectations, his short books did not deal with the big bangs, heavy weaponry, and super-efficient operatives that fill so many modern thrillers and spy novels.
His protagonists tended to be amateurs (part of the old British tradition) without too many pretensions or illusions and with a distinct lack of idealistic posturing. They tended to find themselves in what might be called ordinary life dangers. They weren’t facing the death ray but the possibility of being caught red-handed with incriminating documents, fake passports, or ambiguous passengers. Danger lurked, to be sure, but so did the possibility of a humiliating unmasking and, from the combination, Ambler extracted an amazing amount of suspense.
start of the Russell novels
Russell is an interesting character, a former Communist and a veteran of WW1. He dislikes the Nazis, but he wants desperately to remain in the Reich where his son Paul, age 11, lives with his German mother, and where the charming Effie is a B level actress.
They are his reasons for not wanting to rock the boat, and he only moves out of his comfort zone after he begins tutoring the intelligent Wiesner girls, whose desperate parents are trying to prepare them for a safe exit.
next up in the series
If Zoo Station is not quite like what they used to write, it is a welcome variant. Less brutal and cynical than Philip Kerr’s excursions into the same territory, it still conveys the terror of the regime, the desperation of its Jewish citizens and the despair of anti-Nazi patriots, while offering suspense without firearms or official status.
John Russell is one of the amateurs of espionage and he’s a good one.