Jeffery Deaver takes a break from his best-selling novels about forensic expert Lincoln Rhyme and his pursuit of sociopathic killers for the NYPD to give us a story about a killer on a mission in a place where the sociopaths are in charge.
Deaver's anti-hero in "Garden of Beasts" is mob "button man" Paul Schumann, a German-American who hires out to bump off mobsters. He's a careful and cold killer, but he will accept only bad guys as targets.
Schumann is set up and captured by the authorities, but instead of being thrown in the slammer, he finds himself talking to a senator and a Naval Intelligence officer who have a job for him. If Schumann, who speaks fluent German, will go to Berlin and kill Reinhard Erst, the architect of Hitler's military buildup, his legal slate will be wiped clean. And he'll get $10,000 to boot.
Since the alternative is the electric chair, Schumann has little compunction about accepting the contract.
Schumann is sent over with the cover of a journalist covering the 1936 Olympics, which gives Deaver the chance to throw in characters like Jesse Owens and other athletes of the period.
But things fall apart at Schumann's very first contact with his handler, and a shootout with an apparent Nazi stormtrooper puts the two men on the run with Inspector Willi Kohl, Germany's most famous police detective, hot on their trail.
As he tracks the killers, Kohl, who already is an anti-Nazi, uncovers as much about the evil that is taking over his country as he does about the crime he is investigating. Schumann, in confronting an evil beyond his imagining, finds it in himself to become a hero.
As novels about serial killers go, Deaver's Lincoln Rhyme books are a bit of a lark - their plots require the suspension of disbelief, but they're so well constructed and entertaining that readers are more than willing to go along.
Despite its high-concept gimmick of "Dirty Dozen" meets "Gorky Park," Deaver's latest is his most serious book since the pre-Rhyme, "A Maiden's Grave." While it's not quite up to the literary and realistic level of a Robert Harris or a Martin Cruz Smith, it's way above the Jack Higgins or Ken Follett potboiler.
Deaver's research is excellent, and he gives a sense of pre-war Berlin as the Nazis consolidate their power without heaping on meaningless details, a trap into which many writers of historical fiction fall.
One nice touch is his avoiding the usual mixing of German words and English words while people are supposedly speaking German, so terms like "der Fuerher," or "das Reich" don't pop up in the middle of an otherwise translated sentence. Germans talk about "our Leader" or "the Empire," and the effect is authentic and believable.
But Deaver's real achievement is his portrait of the insidious ways that the National Socialists pervaded every aspect of German life, effectively choking resistance.
Deaver's large cast includes people from enough walks of German life to give a varied and complex picture of the decisions and choices people had to make living under the regime. There are no cartoonish goose-stepping characters here (though Herman Goering comes close, as he did in real life); instead, we meet people trying to survive and making choices, good and bad, in the face of a threat that their previously comfortable existence has not prepared them for.
The book has a couple of Deaver's signature plot twists, but they are believable and well set up. After throwing reality completely aside in "The Vanished Man," his last (and enjoyable) Lincoln Rhyme novel, "Garden of Beasts" is a statment to his fans that he has the chops to cope with serious themes and be just as entertaining.