One month before the 9/11 terrorist attacks reduced the World Trade Center to rubble, Jeffery Deaver was having lunch at Windows on the World, catching up on Big Apple gossip with the chef and waitresses. The 107th-floor eatery had once been Deaver's hangout during the years he worked nearby as a Wall Street civil attorney. Since leaving the practice to write full-time in 1990 and moving to Virginia five years later, Deaver had made a Windows lunch into a pilgrimage of sorts whenever he found himself in the city.
The image of the towers toppling in flames slapped most of us abruptly into the present. For Deaver, the tragedy sent him in the opposite direction.
"I was looking for types of evil to write about and I got to thinking that I would like to do a book about institutionalized evil," he tells BookPage. "The religious fundamentalist terrorist, the Islamic terrorist is overdone, and frankly it's not that compelling to me. I mean it's easy to take a child, brainwash them, strap five pounds of C-4 on them and go kill people. It's like shooting fish in a barrel. There's nothing interesting or compelling about that dramatically. I wanted to do more complex institutionalized evil, and decided that the phenomenon that contemporary readers would be most familiar with was Hitler and the Nazis."
Welcome to Garden of Beasts, Deaver's 19th novel and the biggest departure yet for the master of the ticking-bomb thriller. The son of a Chicago advertising copywriter, Deaver was already a successful New York journalist, poet and singer-songwriter (he still performs) when he earned his law degree with the intention of becoming a legal correspondent for The New York Times or Wall Street Journal. Instead, he hired on with a Wall Street law firm and used his long train commutes to hone his skills as a thriller writer. Garden of Beasts, which he sets in the foreboding milieu of pre-World War II Berlin, has all the trademark roller-coaster plot twists and double blindsides as Deaver's addictive Lincoln Rhyme series (The Bone Collector, The Vanished Man). There is one chilling difference, however: these horrors really happened.
Paul Schumann is a German-American mob hit man and World War I veteran whose deadly effectiveness is tempered by his conscience; he only takes "righteous" hits. When he's busted by the feds, he is presented with a choice: Sing-Sing or one last assignment to kill Reinhardt Ernst, the architect of Hitler's ruthless rearmament. If he succeeds, a pardon awaits, with enough money to pursue a legitimate livelihood.
"I was intrigued by the idea of creating a morally ambiguous character who nonetheless stays true to certain aspects of his personality," says Deaver. "For instance, he would not shoot down a woman and child in front of him to get at his target. He's smart, he's there on a good purpose, and he's motivated by his own self-preservation, but also because he sees the terrible things going on there and wants to do something about that. He doesn't really have a lot to lose, so it's easier to think, my God, he might not make it to the end of this book."
The premise echoes that of The Dirty Dozen, one of the many war movies that helped shape Deaver's narrative style. "I was born in 1950 and my father was a gunner in World War II, so the atmosphere of the Second World War was something that I was certainly aware of from my youth. And the war stories and the espionage stories particularly the movies of the '60s and early '70s, The Dirty Dozen and The Day of the Jackal were just superb," he says.
In the novel, Schumann poses as a journalist accompanying the U.S. Olympic team to the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin. In addition to providing an expeditious way to slip Schumann beneath the Nazi radar, the Games afford Deaver the opportunity to introduce his historical cast, which includes Hitler, Goebbels, Himmler and Goring as well as American gold medalist Jesse Owens. "Here was this country that was hosting this event to promote world brotherhood and sportsmanship, and all the while the camps were up and running and Jews and any political opponents were being systematically arrested and tortured and killed. What irony; here's Hitler and this magnificent stadium, I summon the youth of the world,' when meanwhile beneath the city dozens and dozens of secret prisons were operating."
When Schumann kills a storm trooper, it sets Inspector Willi Kohl of Kripo, the Berlin police, on his tail. A reluctant follower of the Third Reich, Kohl represents working-class Germans whose choices were few as the Nazis swept to power. Kohn trails Schumann to a military school where the psychological experiments of the new regime will horrify them both.
In one particularly chilling scene, Ernst returns home from a day of atrocities, kisses his wife and settles in to help his grandson build a boat, just another working stiff.
"The higher-ups knew exactly what was going on, and yet they would go home with this sense of, Well, I did a good job.' They didn't even have a sense that the rest of the world was condemning them for it. 'That was my job, I did it and I'm coming home to have schnitzel with my family,' " Deaver says.
Deaver admits he was surprised, and perhaps slightly complimented, to learn that German publishers had declined to release Garden of Beasts.
"They made me a very nice offer for my next two Lincoln Rhyme books (Gallows Heights is due in summer 2005), but they said we just can't publish this," he says. "That was their choice, of course, but I have to say the book was very accurate."
Jay MacDonald is a professional writer based in Mississippi.