I purchased this novel in hardcover when it came out, at Sam’s Club (the reason I know is because it still had the sticker on it) probably circa 2004, and then I shelved it and never read it. Why not? Well, I have to say that I’m not a big historical fiction reader, and when I re-read the blurb on the dust cover, it just never grabbed me, never made me want to pick it up next. There was always something that grabbed me a bit more.
Recently I’ve been reading a lot on my Kindle, but I still have stacks of hardcover books I’ve picked up off of the bargain tables at various bookstores, especially Barnes and Noble. Recently I’ve been making a bit of an effort to clear some of those that have been staring at me the longest, and this one jumped out at me. I’d read something on Steven M. Moore’s blog praising the novel, and I thought, “That one has been sitting there a long time…why not give it a try?”
I’m very glad I did. GARDEN OF BEASTS: A Novel of Berlin 1936 was a first-rate thriller with world class villains — the Nazis. Hitler, Goering, and Himmler (among others) all make appearances as American “button man” Paul Schumann agrees to go to Berlin with the Olympic team in order to hit, not Hitler, not Himmler or Goering or Goebbels, but a fictional character (I think) named Reinhard Ernst.
This Ernst fellow seems to be a different sort than those others, a more rational man who is motivated by a love for his country, not a blind adherence to the politics of hate and racism. But he is the “architect” of the German military buildup, and the Americans feel that he needs to be eliminated, and in a public manner. Schumann is dispatched to kill him in return for having his record expunged and being paid a large cash sum, which will allow him to “go straight”.
Once there, however, things are not as simple as they are laid out. Ernst, involved in a project called the Waltham Study, has to outmaneuver Goering, the air minister, and deal with family issues as Schumann stalks him through Berlin. Schumann and his contact collect the information and the weapons that he will need to carry out his assignment, and meets up with a German con man named Webber and the manager of his boarding house, Kathe Richter. Oh, and along the way, he falls in love — with Ms. Richter.
Plenty of intrigue and misdirection follow as Schumann tries to finish his job and get back to the United States. The ending was satisfying and somewhat unexpected. I only wish I had not waited over ten years to read it. What other treasues are waiting for me among those stacks?
Watch this blog for announcements about my next novella, a 37000 word work I call THE INN. It will be available on Amazon for Kindle by the end of the week.