Most Dan Wells novels feature some speculative weirdness: serial killers who hunt monsters, engineered organic beings who hunt humans, hand lotions that overwrite DNA—you know, the usual. But in his audiobook Ghost Station, Wells shows he can also excel at straight-up historical fiction.
The book is set in Cold War Germany, a few weeks after Barbed Wire Sunday (August 13, 1961), the day the East German army began erecting the first phase of the Berlin Wall. At that point, as Wells notes in his afterword, the Wall was generally only four to six feet high, and nearby structures had yet to be cleared away to create the infamous “no man’s land” (a buffer of open space across which refugees had little chance of fleeing without being gunned down). But this early incarnation of the Wall was already heavily patrolled, and its rapid construction stunned many Western observers.
This included much of the CIA. Wallace Reed, the protagonist of Ghost Station and an American cryptographer working in a joint office with the BND (West Germany’s foreign intelligence agency during the Cold War), was no exception. He was just as surprised as the rest of his colleagues when the Wall went up. It’s not a good look—spies are supposed to specialize in secrets, not ignorance.
There might be a way to make amends, though. Early in the story, Reed decodes a message indicating that an East German mole may have compromised the office. If Reed can catch the traitor, he could help prevent future intelligence failures. But he's no field agent, and it quickly becomes clear that determining the double agent’s identity will require going over the Wall. Reed also doesn’t know who to trust.
I didn’t always love that last aspect. It makes sense for Reed to be suspicious of everybody, but his inner monologues on the subject occasionally went on too long for my taste. I also think some of the cryptography mechanics would have been easier to follow if I could have seen rather than heard them; I wish Ghost Station had print and eBook formats available in addition to the audio version.
Jonathan Davis does an excellent job of narrating the story, however, and the result is still a great listen enlivened by period-specific details. My favorite tidbit was that some of the BND agents were former Nazis. They don’t do or say anything to suggest those sympathies persist, but it makes for an awkward alliance with their CIA collaborators.
I also appreciated the book’s title. Some of West Berlin’s train lines passed through East Berlin. When the Wall divided the city, those lines were allowed to continue running but not to let passengers on or off while in Eastern territory. The intervening stops were closed down and referred to as “ghost stations.”
What a great name for a spy novel, and what an excellent entry into the genre. I hope Wells writes more stories in this vein. And if he decides to mix his trademark weirdness in with the history, even better. Ghost Station proves he’s got the chops to do it all.
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