By now, Erik Larson’s fans await each next book. He’s developed an ingenious cross-genre nonfiction formula: interweave a notorious and documented crime and a known historic moment at the point of their convergence. Readers safely tour the grotesque, while in wholesome pursuit of history.
His “The Devil in the White City” (2003) plaited the pre-opening-day politics and construction of the flashy Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, and the hideous operations of a ghoulish serial killer, a kindly pharmacist with a taste for shopgirls. It’s a page-turner. “Thunderstruck” (2006) intermingled the saga of Guglielmo Marconi’s race to perfect and fund the telegraph, with the creepy deeds of the notorious British poisoner Dr. H.H. Crippen, with the two threads converging as Crippen flees aboard a transatlantic steamer — recently equipped with Marconi’s telegraph.
In his newest book, “In the Garden of Beasts,” Larson, formerly a Wall Street Journal reporter, complicates his formula. The criminal gang is surely among the ghastliest ever: no less than Adolf Hitler and his peevish, deadly cronies. We meet them socially as their lives intertwine with those of our rather drab family of heroes, the Dodds, billed innocuously in the subtitle, “Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin.” In fact, the Dodds are hardly average Joes, but the United States’ newly selected ambassador to Germany, William E. Dodd, his wife and their two grown kids.
Larson’s new book is reminiscent of Walter Cronkite’s ’50s TV series, “You Are There,” in which reporters in business attire “cover,” on site, the Fall of Troy and Ben Franklin’s kite experiment. Homing in on a time and place, and a foreground human situation, Larson aligns history into precursor, present and aftermath, and portrays the effect of world-shaping events from the perspectives of specific contemporaries.
The result is electrifying reading, with proximate doom at stake, fascinating because we parse crucial events we know generally, by how they affect our new book friends. We hang out with the Family Dodd — the academic, tepid, fussy, frugal, austere, passively anti-Semitic ambassador, and most especially, his volatile, steamy, intriguing daughter, who arrives in Berlin encumbered by a hasty marriage, recalling an affair with poet Carl Sandburg, and heading, in the ensuing hundreds of pages, for flings with a high SS officer and with a mushball married Soviet spy whose moves were prescripted in Moscow.
Through country picnics, state dinners and walks out from the Dodds’ rented house at Tiergartenstrasse 27a (from which the book’s title derives), we witness the consolidation of Fascist power, the cowed assent of the general population, the isolation and persecution of Jewish citizens, and then the catastrophe of Hitler’s Röhm Putsch of 1934, which, by assassinating political adversaries, cleared the road to the Final Solution.
We witness the persisting benign pomp and protocol of Berlin’s diplomatic community as the Nazi beasts scavenge, and are there as the Allied Powers finally come ’round, with far too little, far too late, when the German government is already cultish and supremacist and installed, when the first weak neighboring nations are overrun, when there’s nothing to do but pack up and head back to America as the inevitable unwinds hideously. Larson takes us there, numbed and entranced, not, this time, merely in pursuit of whodunit, but in pursuit of the anatomy of tyranny. It’s a bigger book than his other good books, and a crucial anatomy for us to comprehend.
Mark Kramer is a writer and writing teacher whose work can be found at www.tellingtruestories.com.