It's 1933. Hitler has just taken power in Germany and the noose tightens around the collective neck of dissenters, communists and, especially Jews. A few American diplomats are alarmed, but isolationist sentiment is strong in the U.S.A. and boats are not rocked. Neither, later, are they sent.
Into this brewing nightmare is dropped the family of William O. Dodd, FDR's newly appointed ambassador. He seems an odd choice: He's not rich, he's not part of the Eastern elite. In fact, he's a southerner and he teaches history at the University of Chicago. But he did study in Leipzig, knows the country and wants to do his bit to promote the Jeffersonian liberalism he believes in. He soon sees the futility of his quest, as the radicalism of Hitler and his henchmen becomes ever more apparent.
Erik Larson knows evil when he sees it. His The Devil in the White City was a brilliant contrasting of hope, as symbolized by the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, and desolation, as a serial killer preyed on its periphery. In the Garden of Beasts also sets off innocence against radical evil as Dodd, by nature a sedentary scholar, is confronted not only with totalitarian brutality (American tourists were being beaten on the street for failing to give the Nazi salute), but must also deal with his own backstabbing state department and the escapades of his er, adventurous daughter, Martha.
And it is Martha Dodd, budding author, jazz-age thrill-seeker and only mildly discriminating flirt, who is the narrative centre of Larson's book. It is Martha who is initially captivated by Nazi glamour and assertiveness, who is a bit disdainful of Jews (as is, initially, her father. in the casual way then typical of North Americans), who embarks on a series of indiscreet affairs that includes a Russian diplomat and Rudolf Diels, then head of the Gestapo.
But it is to Martha that we are also hugely indebted, since she was intelligent and an inveterate, if not completely reliable diarist, providing much of the fodder that enables Larson to unfold this riveting tale, most of which takes place over a single year, from the Dodds' arrival to the Night of Long Knives on June 30, 1934, when Hitler decisively took control by murdering Storm Trooper leader Ernst Röhm along with many of his men and a number of other perceived threats.
One of Larson's implicit themes is the endless capacity of human beings for self-delusion. Liberals and Jews thought Hitler a brief candle who would either burn out from an excess of poisonous fuming or moderate his views once in power; for many Germans, the Nazis promised redemption from the humiliations of the First World War, along with prosperity and glory; politicians and diplomats wanted to believe that Hitler's protestations of peaceful intent were sincere, despite abundant evidence to the contrary. In fact, it's rather shocking that US State department officials, always hostile to Dodd's appointment, seem more concerned with the repayment of a First World War debt than with stopping Hitler.
Larson is superb at creating a you-are-there sense of time and place. The streets of Berlin come alive, especially the tony Tiergarten (zoo, or, literally, "garden of beasts") district which was home to the frugal Dodd (he took much abuse for insisting on living on his salary) and which gives the book both its local title and its echoes of a serpent in Eden.
The cast of minor characters is equally lively and fleshed: Dodd's meetings with the Nazi officials he came to loathe - the blustering Hitler, the pompous self-aggrandizing Goring, who would have been ridiculous had he not been so monstrous - as well as such figures as the ubiquitous and slippery Ernst "Putzi" Hanfstaengel, read like fine fiction. We know how the story will end, but the players do not.
This is a very sad book, sad because it was clear that Hitler could have been stopped early on, sad because so many Germans blithely followed him into the house of horrors, and sad because the small acts of defiance - undiplomatically lecturing Nazi leaders on German history - and breaches of protocol that make William Dodd a hero to us now made him seem a bit of a fool to others then.
But In the Garden of Beasts is also a superb book; Erik Larson's core idea, to trace the moral corruption of an entire society through the swiftly altering perceptions of one family, is nothing less than masterful.
Martin Levin is the Books editor of The Globe and Mail