If you were wondering how Jeffery Deaver was going to follow up on THE VANISHED MAN, his last Lincoln Rhyme/Amelia Sachs novel, you'll have to wait. Instead of a new Rhyme/Sachs novel Deaver has written a stand-alone title, GARDEN OF BEASTS, which of all things is an espionage novel set in mid-1930s Germany. It contains some of Deaver's best writing to date.
The 1936 Summer Olympics are about to begin, and it is under the cover of this event that Paul Schumann arrives in Berlin to carry out a clandestine mission. Schumann is a mob hit man who is out of running room and has been given a choice by the Federal government. Schumann can enter Germany under the guise of a journalist covering the Olympics and assassinate Reinhardt Ernst, the brilliant mastermind behind Adolf Hitler's quiet rebuilding of Germany's military. If he accomplishes this mission, and makes it out of Germany alive, he will receive a substantial amount of cash, a clean record, and a new start. His alternative is to do hard time in a Federal prison.
Schumann, ever the pragmatist, soon finds himself on a ship to Germany. His mission is in jeopardy even before he sets foot in Berlin, but he soon finds that the mission, difficult to begin with, is made all the more so by the police state that seems to operate on the whim and caprice of Hitler and his agents.
The Garden of Beasts is a park in Berlin, but in Deaver's novel it is also a metaphor for Germany itself, a country that is in the grip of a madman. While Schumann targets Ernst, he is himself pursued by Willi Kohl, a state police inspector who is as hamstrung by the interjurisdictional intrigue within the Gestapo and the SS as he is by Schumann's own cunning. While the focus of GARDEN OF BEASTS is on Schumann, Kohl nearly steals all of the attention. He is a doggedly honorable man, trying to do the right thing in a place and time where such is almost impossible. Deaver, interestingly enough, also shows the human side of Ernst, to the extent that one almost --- almost --- hopes that he will escape unscathed from Schumann's mission. But remember that, although the setting is Berlin in 1936 instead of New York City in 2004, GARDEN OF BEASTS is a Deaver novel, and things are not always as they seem.
Many of Deaver's stylistic trademarks are here. He effortlessly crams 48 hours of action into 400 or so pages, with a number of twists and turns that will keep you guessing and wondering throughout. While Deaver will undoubtedly return to Rhyme and Sachs in the near future, GARDEN OF BEASTS serves to reinforce the proposition that Deaver's talents and abilities run too broadly and deeply to be limited to any one set of characters. This is a fascinating thriller, as well as a cautionary tale of the dangers of appeasement and ambivalence. Recommended.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on July 20, 2004
Garden of Beasts: A Novel of Berlin 1936