With the Nazis you have a proper villain: Adolf Hitler. You have some heinous crimes, and here you can take your pick: the Holocaust, waging aggressive war, etc. You have a story arc that even the dumbest studio exec can understand, with a beginning, a middle and an end, and gosh, they’re even in that order. You have some unlikely hero figures: Churchill and Roosevelt, though not, I think, de Gaulle. And, best of all, at the end of the story, the villain is completely destroyed. Good triumphs over evil in a series of epic battles that Tolkien might have imagined. Victory is total. Everyone — even the long-suffering population of Germany — is glad. Ding-dong! The witch is dead.
These story archetypes are almost Jungian, which perhaps accounts for why the Nazi period is so beloved of publishing. This might also explain why Erik Larson, the author of several successful works of popular history such as “The Devil in the White City” and “Isaac’s Storm,” has now turned his attention and considerable talent to the subject with his latest book, “In the Garden of Beasts.” And to bowdlerize a remark of Dr. Johnson’s, one is not surprised to find it done, but to find it done so well.
Over the past 20 years I have published eight novels about the Nazi era. During that time, I have seen an explosion of interest in the Nazis, and the further away that period gets, the more it fascinates us.
I am an avid consumer of books about Nazism — there must be 200 on my shelves — and it seems to me that they are becoming more plentiful. Coming now and in the next few weeks are at least two important new works of nonfiction about the Nazis besides Larson’s, from Austrian historian Gerald Steinacher and British historian Frederick Taylor. At the same time, the books are becoming more reader-friendly. History books have to work much harder than they did of old. It’s no longer enough that they are authoritative and well-researched — they have to be entertaining, too. As entertaining as a novel, perhaps.
Of course this is quite a tall order. But Larson fills it admirably. “In the Garden of Beasts” at times seems derivative of a 1940 memoir, “Through Embassy Eyes,” by Martha Dodd, one of the main characters of his tale. Much of the material is the same, but we can forgive that because Larson fills in everything that Dodd herself felt obliged to leave out: It’s not every U.S. ambassador’s daughter who becomes a spy for the Soviet Union.
We can also forgive Larson because his book reads like an elegant thriller — and certainly better than the elegant thriller, “Sowing the Wind,” that Dodd wrote. I found Larson’s book to be utterly compelling, and while I was reading it there were several occasions on which I had to stop and check to make sure it really was a work of nonfiction. It is — and marvelous stuff. You really couldn’t invent it in a novel because no one would believe you.