Deaver takes on Nazi Germany

''Garden of Beasts''
By Jeffery Deaver
(Simon & Schuster, 404 pages, $24.95)

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Reviewed by John Orr
July 2004

Jeffery Deaver's made a nice living writing about sociopaths in novels such as ''The Bone Collector'' and ''The Coffin Dancer,'' so it makes sense for him to take on Nazi Germany.

He does so in ''Garden of Beasts,'' an excellent mystery thriller filled with Deaver's usual deep research and superior writing, but one that may be a bit too subtle for some of his fans.

Readers who come to Deaver for the nightmare-inducing thrills of most of his earlier novels will find only hints of that scariness in ''Garden of Beasts,'' despite the horrors of his source material.

There are deaths, constant danger and clever twists of plot. But there is not the razor's edge of creepiness that puts adrenalin in the blood of readers, as in Deaver's earlier books. Those fans may have to work a little harder to get into this book, but ''Garden of Beasts'' will reward the effort.

It's a fascinating look at the whys and wherefores of Nazi Germany, told largely from a unique perspective: That of an American ''button man,'' Paul Schumann, who's been hired to hit Reinhard Ernst, Hitler's ''brains behind rearmament.''

The powerful men who want Schumann for the job tell him it's because he is fluent in German and they know he's smart. '''What we've heard about you is that you check everything two, three times before the job. You make sure your guns're in perfect shape, you read up about your victims ... you know when they'll be alone, when they make phone calls, where they eat.'''

That little speech ends up being somewhat ironic later in the book, when Deaver's signature twists and turns heat up, and a possible double- or triple-crosser apparently forgets Schumann's intelligence and ability.

What's in it for Schumann? A ''get-out-of-jail-free card,'' a large wad of cash and having his record completely expunged.

And, two other benefits: He'd been in the Army in World War I and doesn't like this talk of Hitler starting another war. And, he thinks that Ernst's real importance to him is that he will be the last man that he would ever kill.

We like Schumann. He is an honorable killer who targets only bad men, a process he calls ''correcting God's mistakes.'' Incognito on the ocean crossing, he works out with the young boxers on the olympic team and makes friends with Jessie Owens.

But a body hits the cobblestones almost as soon as Schumann gets to Germany. He goes to an alley where he is to meet his contact, is accosted by a man with a gun -- who is in turn shot by someone else. The shooter identifies himself as Schumann's contact and tells him ''you've been in town for less than a day and already we've managed to kill a Stormtrooper.''

The men take the body's identification papers and depart. Before long police Inspector Willi Kohl is on scene. And he's good. He learns that the tall man seen near where the body was found had whistled for a taxi. ''One whistled for dogs and horses. But to summon a taxi this way would demean the driver. ... Did this suggest that the suspect was a foreigner? Or merely rude? He jotted the observation into his notebook.''

Soon it is a race between Schumann and Kohl. Schumann wants to ice Ernst and get out of town; Kohl wants to find the killer of the mysterious body.

Complicating Schumann's task is surviving in Hitler's Germany, where he is at first confused by the yellow paint splashed on some of the homes in the otherwise immaculate city of Berlin. Then he gets in a tussle with some Hitler Youths. Then he falls in love with a starving refugee.

Complicating Kohl's task are the new levels of bureaucracy and paranoia among government agencies in Berlin. Kohl, who is a gifted detective and someone we come to like and admire, has to contend with Nazi fanatics and members of other police agencies more interested in politics than in finding out who killed the man in the alley.

And, Deaver lets us get to know Ernst, the man intended for Schumann's gun sights. We meet his wife and his children; his chief competitor for favor, Hermann Goering; and his boss, Adolf Hitler.

It's all part of Deaver's mastery. He gives his readers at least something to like about each of the three major players in this story -- Schumann, Kohl and Ernst -- before making it clear where the real evil is hiding.