Garden of Beasts, Jeffery Deaver,
This review is from: Garden of Beasts (Paperback)
I don't normally like books of this type. Broadly, adventure/espionage(ish) stories with guns. It's by Jeffery Deaver, though, so I wasn't going to say no. A hit goes wrong for hired-gun Paul Schumann. He's caught red-handed by the government. Instead of throwing him straight into jail for an indeterminate period of, oh, roughly the rest of his life, they offer him an alternative: travel to Germany to assassinate Reinhard Ernst, and earn freedom. It's 1936, and Ernst is Hitler's right-hand man. While Hitler is viewed almost as an unstable madman, posing no realistic threat, Ernst is seen as the real danger; he's the man who is masterminding Germany's covert rearmamentation program.
Schumann travels by ship to Europe, and then onto Berlin, a city teetering on the edge of violent madness, and preparing for the coming Olympics in a few days' time. Despite the fact that the government has toned levels of policing down, and warned against "official" acts of violence lest the myriad foreign press happen by, there is still a heavy SS presence on the streets, and levels of fear among the population are high. But, then, as are levels of admiration for the new National Socialist Party. Into this confused city steps Schumann, and he begins his hunt. But, thanks to a German spy from the Atlantic crossing, the hunt is on for Schumann as well.
The bottom line here with this book (because why must it come at the bottom?) is that it's good but not Deaver's best.
I'm always heartened to see a new standalone from Deaver; they aren't restricted by the formula of his Rhyme series, which, yes, is excellent, but while the plots are exhilarating and unpredictable, the narrative mechanisms and basic devices remain the same from book to book. His standalones allow him to take other routes with different characters, allowing the books to have more varying frameworks, less repetitive structures. Such is the case here.
In terms of plotting, it's actually probably his most rounded novel yet. It has a very full, detailed feel to it. It might be a little too detailed, actually. The portrait of Berlin and the political situation of the time (not just in Germany but the wider world) is very good indeed, but he spends a little too much time on it, rather at the expense of character, I thought. Now, Deaver isn't always the best writer in the world in terms of developing excellent, human characters, but normally he's good enough and occasionally he does excel himself. But here the characters seem to have less heart than usual; they also seem further away, more distant from the reader. And it's not just because of the setting in time, I don't think - because that shouldn't actually matter.
Of course, there is as always one exception to this, and it comes in the form of Willi Kohl, an exceptional character. A Berlin policeman, he is dogged, astute and very intelligent. He's on Paul's tail, too - which marvellously split this reader right down the middle in terms of who I wanted to come out "on top". He's excellent, quite simply. A reasoned, level-headed voice speaking for a people who, collectively, seem to converse through the mouths of the mad.
He is part of the reason for possibly the most interesting thing about this book: the continual shifts of morality. The bad guys switch places with the good and vice versa; political ideals intrude on the personal; the readers' concept of justice is manipulated by some pretty cheap (to be honest) portraits of the personal lives of both villain and hero. And a couple of deft twists - a device which Deaver has practically made his own - only alter your perspective further, creating some rather attractive moral ambiguities. It's all, for the most part, done pretty subtly as well.
As always, Deaver's done his research, and it's the interesting details which contribute so much to the atmospheric evocation of Berlin; the details saturate the plot, too, informing it rather than intruding. Garden of Beasts is a success, if not his best novel to date.