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THE GARDEN OF BEASTS by Jeffrey Deaver: Book Review

The Garden of Beasts is a fascinating read!  It is definitely a crime novel, but it goes outside the genre to become a historical work as well.

It takes place in 1936 in Berlin, immediately before the Olympics that Hitler hosted. Paul Schumann is a New York City free-lance hit man. He’s a third generation German-American from a family that emigrated to the United States before The Great War.  When his father was killed because he refused to give his printing business to some local mobsters, Schumann seeks revenge by killing the men.  He’s then approached by various gangsters in the city to be a “button man,” a killer of the enemies of Manhattan mobsters, and that’s what he has been doing for the past dozen years or so.  He’s meticulous in his work, which he justifies to himself by killing only criminals, never innocents.

One slip-up, however, gets him noticed by federal officials.  They make him an offer he can’t refuse–go to Germany, pose as a journalist covering the Olympics, and kill Colonel Reinhard Ernst, a Nazi official in charge of rebuilding Germany’s military.  Schumann is chosen both because of his excellent marksmanship and his fluency in German.  If he succeeds in killing the colonel, his criminal record will be cleared and he will receive $10,000 with which to restart his life.

I started out disliking Schumann intensely.  How could anyone feel anything positive for a man who has killed over twenty times, even if those he killed were killers themselves?  What gave him the right to be the executioner?  But as the novel progressed and I got into Schumann’s head, I came first to respect him and then to admire him. He’s smart, quick on his feet, and begins to understand exactly what is happening in Germany.

Even more remarkable than the insights Deaver gives the reader into Schumann’s mind is his ability to make the reader understand the thinking of the various Germans involved.  There are high level Nazis, anonymous members of the S.S. and Gestapo, and non-Party police investigators trying to solve a killing that leads them to Schumann without knowing the greater purpose that brought him to Germany.  The humiliation that Germany suffered during the War has warped the minds of its leaders, and they must find scapegoats to hold responsible–the Jews, the gypsies, the communists, the pacifists.  They are all viewed as guilty in a conspiracy against the Aryans, and now the Aryans must rid the country of these enemies of the state to begin the Thousand Year Reich.

America’s blindness during the early Hitler years is explained as well.  From lack of interest in the fate of the Jews and other minorities in Germany, to the desire to avoid a European war so soon after the “war to end all wars,” to a monetary interest from those who have invested in rearming Germany, the reader gets inside the minds of the characters in the book.  And all the bad guys aren’t on one side, much as we would like to think so.

Both the characters and the plot make this novel an extraordinary read.

I have read several of Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme mysteries and enjoyed them, but The Garden of Beasts is a deeper, more thoughtful book than any in that series.  The subject it explores makes it so.

You can learn more about Jeffrey Deaver at his web site.