Erik Larson’s The Devil in The White City stands as one of the most compelling non-fiction books I’ve ever read. Weaving together stories about the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 and a series of murders plaguing the Chicago-area, the book reads like the most compelling of novels. Amidst the drama and intrigue, the book is a stunning look at the world of technology, science, politics, and pathology at the turn of the century.
Larson’s follow up Thunderstruck, about the race for wireless communication, was a goodie as well, though not as stellar as Devil. I just finished his most recent, In The Garden of Beasts, telling the tale of William E. Dodd, the American Ambassador to Germany in the years leading up to World War II. The book focuses on Dodd and his family as they navigate and try to make sense of the politically charged climate of pre-WWII Berlin. Hitler and his cronies are on the rise, Germany is filled with a rising bloodlust, and the country teeters on the precipice of sanity.
While I certainly enjoyed the book and gained a much greater insight into those shadowy years, the book is simply not as riveting as it should be. The main characters, Ambassador Dodd and his daughter Martha are just not dynamic enough to carry the weight of the book. In an era filled with monstrous villains and those trying to stand up to them, the Dodds are simply not that compelling. Ambassador Dodd comes off as the eternal, misguided optimist, who feels his presence can help bring Germany back from the brink. Martha is by far more interesting. She’s young, saucy, and filled with naive thoughts about revolutionary movements. At first she finds the Nazis and their revolution exciting, but as her time in Germany progresses, she realizes how badly she’s judged the situation. She flits through social situations with key German and Russian players, but she’s so slow to realize the looming danger presented by the Nazi regime, that the book loses a certain oomph as a result.
In The Garden of Beasts does do a nice job charting the rise of the Party and the internecine squabbles within. But the book lacks the pervasive Nazi creepiness exhibited in the work of Phillip Kerr. I recently got turned onto Kerr’s Berlin Noir series. Berlin Noir is a series of taut crime novels featuring private eye Bernie Gunther exploring the dark passageways of pre and post war Berlin. Those books are fantastic, and to be frank, do a better job capturing the psychosis of a nation about to go off the deep end. It’s a world clouded by long shadows—an environment of paranoia where nobody trusts anybody, where neighbors turn against neighbors, and where people go missing everyday. The politics are thick and it’s impossible to know which way the wind will blow and how long it will continue blowing.
All of this is alluded to in In The Garden of Beasts, but, perhaps, because our two leads are somewhat Pollyana-ish in their view of the Reich, that sense of paranoia gets muted.
Ultimately, Berlin Noir and In the Garden make for excellent companion pieces. Same time, same place, same set of ghoulish characters. In the Garden feels a little more PBS in its delivery, while Kerr captures the darker psychology at play.