Despite the fact that I don't really care for contemporary spy novels, World War II thrillers are my favorite brand of fiction after fantasy/SF. They give me a satisfying dose of real-world action that brings me back down to Earth after the strange worlds that fantasy can bring. This may be because the Nazis make such cool villains (despite what Steven Spielberg says about not using them anymore). Which brings us to Jeffery Deaver's Garden of Beasts, the latest entry in the genre. Garden of Beasts is an immensely satisfying tale that blends intrigue, intelligence, and just that little bit of nastiness into a great treat.
Paul Schumann is a thug, but he's a noble thug. He's a war hero from World War I, a boxer and a man who only kills the "right" people. He's part of the underworld, but only as a man who wants to clean the dregs out from that world. On a hit, he's cornered by the Feds, but is offered a unique choice. Go to jail, or do a mission for them that will expunge his record and allow him to start over. All he has to do is go to Germany and kill Reinhardt Ernst, the architect of German rearmament. Endorsed by a senator and financed by a millionaire, Schumann heads off to Berlin with the American Olympic team, masquerading as a sports reporter. Things quickly fall of the rails, though, as Paul has to be saved by his Berlin contact by shooting the man accosting him. This murder draws one of the best detectives in Berlin, Willi Kohl, into the case. Forced to improvise from the outset with a snarling dog of a detective on his heels, Paul has to navigate the rocky rapids of love, betrayal, and bad luck in order to accomplish his mission. On the way, he'll discover just how sick the National Socialists are, as will other Germans who get in his way. Will he accomplish his mission, or allow his heart to get in the way?
Taking place in 1936, on the eve of the Berlin Olympics, the world does not yet know the horrors of National Socialism. Some Americans, in fact, think they should side with the Germans in any upcoming war. Deaver does a wonderful job of setting the scene, showing us Germans from all sides: some horrified by what their Germany has become, and some beholden to Hitler and his ideals. Some just take advantage of the situation to line their own pockets. Even the minor characters who show up briefly are given just enough characterization to illustrate this. There's the Brownshirt leader who Schumann beats up defending a pair of elderly Jews, who is suitably haughty yet a coward when somebody stands up to him, hiding the truth behind his assault when Kohl questions him about it. There's the person who denounces the Fischer brothers, showing how even the most upright-seeming citizens can fall under Hitler's spell.
Deaver goes deeply into the characterization of Schumann, Kohl, and Ernst, giving us three viewpoints that show different perspectives behind the Nazi ideal. Ernst starts out the novel looking vaguely sympathetic, constantly fighting Goring and Goebbels to make sure he's able to maintain his position. He's doing an experiment that starts off sounding benign but takes a nasty turn. Ernst is one of Deaver's failures, however, not so much because I didn't like him as a character. Instead, what makes him fail is the roller-coaster ride of his emotions at the end of the book, before the climax. He does two about-faces in the span of three pages, which I found very hard to believe..
Kohl, on the other hand, is wonderful, if predictable. He's the intrepid detective whose duty is to the truth, not to the Nazis. He's trying to solve three murders, one of which involves Paul. He's intelligent, piecing together clues and staying just a step or two behind Paul. However, he makes mistakes just like any other man would, making him human. He has nothing but contempt for the Nazis but knows he can't do anything about it. His involvement in the plot, as well as his ultimate fate, is quite obvious, especially as the story moves forward. I liked reading about him, though, which made the predictability excusable for me.
Schumann, for being the protagonist, I found to be fairly mundane. He does have some interesting moments, such as when he has to choose between his target and his conscience, but ultimately I didn't find him that interesting. Good enough to keep me reading, but not good enough to really captivate me. I found his relationship with Kathe to be way too sudden, but otherwise there really wasn't anything wrong with him. He just didn't grab me.
The plot, however, did. There are a couple of twists that I did not see coming and I had to put the book down in shock when I got to them. In novels like this, inevitably the plot goes awry and the main character has to improvise. That does happen here, but in ways that surprised me. The final meeting does seem a little choreographed, but not enough to make a major dent in my enjoyment. The finale is quite good, and the results of what happens are interesting. Some of the ending is predictable (as I said about Kohl above), but some of it does surprise. The good thing is that, thinking back to events earlier in the book, the ending makes sense, so it is possible to see it coming if you're good.
The plot is jammed with intrigue and interesting characters, the hallmarks of books in this genre. We learn yet again that Nazis are not good people (a bit cliché, but still can be done in interesting ways). Put it all together and you've got a great book that will keep you reading into the night.