Book review: 'In the Garden of Beasts' could have been even better

Given that his previous two books featured grisly murders and the twisted men committing them, Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts — chronicling the early days of the homicidal Nazi regime — would seem to be right in his wheelhouse.

But Larson — best known for The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair That Changed America and Thunderstruck — admits in an afterword that "living among Nazis day in, day out proved for me a uniquely trying experience. I did not realize how much the darkness would infiltrate my own soul."

Larson's chosen angle on this oft-told story — U.S. Ambassador William E. Dodd, during his first year in Berlin — couldn't have done much to improve his mood.

Dodd was a history professor who became Roosevelt's first ambassador to Germany — the result of his support for FDR in 1932 and Roosevelt's difficulties in finding anyone else willing to take the job.

When Dodd arrived in Berlin in July 1933 — less than six months after Hitler had been named chancellor — U.S. citizens were being attacked, often because they were Jewish or because they refused to return the Nazi salute. Jews and political prisoners already were being tortured and murdered.

But as Larson demonstrates, Dodd's career as a student of comparatively rational actors left him ill-equipped to see how bad things had become — or how naive he was to imagine he could use reason to moderate the worst of what he saw.

Not that the professional American diplomats were doing much better. Most of them didn't take Hitler seriously. Many of them, including Dodd, were anti-Semitic.

It's hard to read about Dodd complaining that there were too many Jews on his staff — or about a meeting with Germany's foreign minister in which Dodd not only suggested Germany might solve its "Jewish problem" less violently, but also stated that Jews in the United States "had gotten too much of a hold on certain departments of intellectual and business life."

Dodd's daughter, Martha, 24, was worse, writing that "we sort of don't like the Jews anyway" and that she "'Heiled' as vigorously as any Nazi," "the intoxication of the new regime working like wine in me."

Larson justifies giving Martha a huge portion of his book by saying she is "the perfect lens through which to view the times." It's hard to see why; she comes across as a flighty nymphomaniac with a romanticized view of history and life whose many Berlin lovers included the head of the Gestapo and a Soviet spy.

Like her father, Martha would come to see the Nazis for the thugs they were.

But while Dodd's increasingly critical stance was hard won and often courageously expressed — eventually costing him his job — Martha's could be driven by factors as superficial as a Nazi snarling at her for playing a particular song on the Victrola.

Larson relies heavily on Martha's own subsequent writings, accepting her account of her political awakening at face value and spending way too much time on matters such as her Russian romance — re- created in vividly purple prose — that have little bearing on his main story.

Parts of that story therefore never fully come into focus — including, critically, the climactic event in Larson's book: the power struggle between Hitler and SA leader Ernst Rohm that culminated in the infamous Night of the Long Knives in June 1934.

"The nation seemed poised at the climax of some cinematic thriller," Larson writes of the months before that June massacre.

It's a good description of this book. Fast-paced and filled with deft sketches, telling anecdotes and secret assignations, it successfully gives us history as noir.

But in detailing the Nazis' lurid crimes, Larson has missed a chance to say more about the nature of the crim inals themselves — as well as the many abettors who failed to do more to stop them.