About Me

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Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada
I am a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries. Since 2000 I have been writing personal book reviews. This blog includes my reviews, information on and interviews with authors and descriptions of mystery bookstores I have visited. I strive to review all Saskatchewan mysteries. Other Canadian mysteries are listed under the Rest of Canada. As a lawyer I am always interested in legal mysteries. I have a separate page for legal mysteries. Occasionally my reviews of legal mysteries comment on the legal reality of the mystery. You can follow the progression of my favourite authors with up to 15 reviews. Each year I select my favourites in "Bill's Best of ----". As well as current reviews I am posting reviews from 2000 to 2011. Below my most recent couple of posts are the posts of Saskatchewan mysteries I have reviewed alphabetically by author. If you only want a sentence or two description of the book and my recommendation when deciding whether to read the book look at the bold portion of the review. If you would like to email me the link to my email is on the profile page.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson – University of Chicago History Professor, William E. Dodd, is offered the position of American ambassador to Germany in 1933 just after Hitler has assumed power essentially because no one else wanted the job. President Franklin Roosevelt gave him two hours to consider the offer. Dodd accepted.

The austere Dodd, who loved to spend time working on his small Virginia farm, is often described in the book as a Jeffersonian democrat. With modest personal resources and determined to live on his official annual salary of $17,500.00 he was ill suited to serving in a foreign service dominated by members of America’s wealthy elite. The members of the “Pretty Good Club” were condescending at best in their attitudes towards Dodd.

Joining Dodd in Berlin were his wife, Martha known as “Mattie”, his son, William Jr. known as “Bill” and his daughter, Martha.

A jolt of sexual energy runs through the book as the daughter, Martha, engages in affairs with men of multiple European nationalities including Russians, Germans and French. She is attracted to good men, average men and dangerous men.

As they arrive in Germany Dodd and his family share a positive attitude. Dodd enjoyed his studies at Leipzig prior to WW I. They have an American optimism that is a wonderful trait of many Americans. They are wary of Nazis but hopeful the early violence of the regime was an aberration.

Where I had thought of the SS and the Gestapo as the most feared agencies in Nazi Germany the book makes clear that in the early days it was the SA which caused the most anxiety. With their aggressive marches and crude tactics they were a menace to anyone not an avowed supporter of Hitler. It is Ernst Rohm, head of the SA, rather than Heinrich Himmler, in charge of the SS, who lives in a fine home down the street.

Dodd is one of many to find Hitler’s personality uncomfortable during meetings. More important he believes Hitler’s sincere expressions that Hitler wants peace. While Hitler is verbally interested in peace all around Germany re-armament has begun. With the terrible losses that took place in WW I, diplomats and politicians in Europe and North America want to believe Hitler’s words.

There is a fascinating moment when Martha has a private discussion with Hitler. Nazi Putzi Hanfstaengel had an idea that an American woman would be a good choice for the spouse of the Fueher. While the rendezvous was not repeated Martha's observations of Hitler were positive:

“Hitler’s eyes,” she wrote, “were startling and unforgettable – they seemed pale blue in color, were intense, unwavering, hypnotic.”

Yet his manner was gentle – “excessively gentle,” she wrote – more that of a shy teenager than an iron dictator. “Unobtrusive, communicative, informal, he had a certain quiet charm, almost a tenderness of speech and glance,” she wrote.


He “seemed modest, middle class, rather dull and self-conscious – yet with the strange tenderness and appealing helplessness,” Martha wrote.

The story of this All-American family in Germany, as the Nazis steadily strengthen their grip on Germany, is compelling.

The Dodds support Jewish people but have their own prejudices. Ambassador Dodd speaks to senior Nazis of how America resolved the issue of too many American Jews in high ranking university positions through quotas.

There are vivid portrayals of such Nazi leaders as Goebbels and Goring.

I have long read that Berliners were famous for sardonic humour but I have rarely seen examples. Larson provides several. Two arose after Hitler’s “Night of the Long Knives” in which he purged the leadership of the SA.

There was a question between Berliners after the killings:

            “Are you still among the living?”

When Hitler said the homosexuality of Ernst Rohm, the SA’s leader was “a complete surprise to him” Berliners joked:

            “What will he do when he finally finds out about Gobbels’s
            club foot?”
During their first year in Berlin the family, especially Martha, is transformed. Where 80 years later we see the Nazis through their brutality, especially during WW II, they were subtler in their early days in power. Life, except for Jews and Communists, was improving for the German people under Hitler’s leadership of the nation in 1933. It was only through daily contact with Nazis that the Dodd family came to appreciate the Nazis were cruel and dangerous.

It is a brilliant book unfolding as a mystery with the Ambassador and his family gradually working out that the dangers at the heart of Nazi Germany. (June 30/13)


  1. Bill - It does indeed sound like a fascinating book that gives insight into a pivotal time. And it seems to be an honest portrayal of how the Nazi power developed in Germany. I'm glad it worked so well for you.

  2. Margot: Thanks for the comment. Seeing how people actually lived in Berlin has given me a new perspective on the early days of the Nazi regime.

  3. Bill, thanks for a very engaging review of a book I hope to read in near future. Historically, the "Night of the Long Knives" that led to the infamous purge and the cold-blooded murders of Rohm and the entire SA leadership tells one about the intense power struggle within the Nazi Party and Hitler's own insecurity over his political future. The month-long putsch laid to rest all opposition, especially from the German army, to Hitler's ultimate rise to power. I have read in some places that Hitler, unbelievable as it may seem, was a soft-spoken man, perhaps even a decent human being, very early in his political career. "The Rise and Fall of Adolf Hitler" by William L. Shirer, tells us much about the people and events that shaped and reshaped Hitler as a person.

  4. This is a work of non-fiction and your fine review makes it seem like a novel! I read DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY many years ago and found the history of the Chicago Exposition, the invention of the Ferris Wheel, and the sotry about Daniel Burnham a lot more interesting than the parallel story of the capture of mass murderer H. H. Holmes. I also have THUNDERSTRUCK (still unread!) and I may have to find a copy of this, too. Your review has certainly piqued my interest.

  5. Prashant: Thanks for the comment. Having read Ian Kershaw's two volume biography of Hitler and Explaining Hitler by Ron Rosenbaum I would not call Hitler either soft spoken or decent early in his political career. He gained attention for his vitriolic speeches, extreme views and clear prejudices at the start of his career in politics.

  6. John: Thanks for the kind words. I appreciate them.

    Larson is a skilled storyteller.

    I have Devil in the White City sitting on my shelves. I am going to have to read the book!

    My younger son, Michael, was just in Chicago for a few days and has fallen in love with the city.

  7. Great review, Bill. I am sure I commented earlier that this is a book I want to read, and my husband has read many of his books... including this one. I read Devil in the White City.

  8. TracyK: I hope to read a review of the book on your blog.

    With both yourself and John mentioning Devil in the White City I am encouraged to find it in my TBR piles.

  9. Since we're discussing WWII and related books, I must plug The Collini Case, written by German attorney Ferdinand von Schirach.

    It's fascinating, a moving story, international law weaknesses, German law today vis-a-vis WWII criminals.

    Suggest you read it, as you like legal mysteries.

    Meanwhile, I'm now reading Dead Peasants, a pleasant read after Collini.

  10. Kathy D.: Thanks for the comment. I appreciate the recommendation. I expect it will find its way on to the TBR piles in my house some day.

  11. William Shirer, notwithstanding, Hitler was never a decent person.

    He came into power on Jan. 30, 1933. On Feb. 28, the day after the Reichstag fire, civil liberties were virtually eliminated in Germany; political opposition figures were imprisoned, including democratically elected parliamentarians.

    The same year eugenics policies were implemented with all of the racist, bigoted propaganda that went with it.

  12. Kathy D.: Thanks for the comment. I think Hitler's life went wrong after he was gassed in WW I and treated for hysterical blindness. I think you would enjoy Explaining Hitler by Ron Rosenbaum.

  13. No. I don't want to read about Hitler at all, no history. What he did was a crime against tens of millions of people.

    Whatever happened I'm not interested.

    However, he was not alone. He was supported by the German wealthy, bankers, corporation owners. So there was agreement on these policies and not just one deranged, power-mad racist.

  14. Kathy D.: Thanks for the comment. I will still recommend Explaining Hitler. Rosenbaum looks at various efforts to explain Hitler. Included is a review of authors who suggest there should be no effort to explain Hitler as trying to explain enters into trying to understand a monstrous mind.

  15. I would agree with your last sentence, as to me, with Jewish immigrant relatives who fled anti-Semitic czarist pogroms in the early 1900s, that I don't want to understand Hitler as a person at all.

    I would like to know what was going on with the German wealthy, bankers, corporate owners, etc., that they would agree to pursue this genocidal, power-hungry drive for world domination. Why did they agree to this? Why did they agree to the genocide?

    This is as a social and political phenomenon, not to try to "understand" one monster. He couldn't have done what he did without support, funds, the military, the economic forces that drove them, etc.

    I grew up with Shirer's book in my parents' living room, so I know about it.

  16. Kathy D.: Thanks for the comment. I disagree that there is no purpose in trying to understand Hitler. I believe we need to understand as much as possible to stop such men achieving power.

    I believe the German "Establishment" was as blind as the governments of the world. Too many thought Hitler would moderate has views and actions once he was in power.

  17. Well, I think it's much more complicated than just Hitler. In 1932, death threats were being made against anyone in the political opposition. Civil liberties were being curtailed, and then eliminated right after the Reichstag Fire.

    The powers that be saw this going on, and then the eugenics policies evinced later that year.

    The brown shirts were shooting at unemployed workers and others who were out on the streets.

    I think there was agreement among the establishment over policies, as there were with Pinochet's coup against democratically elected Allende in Chile, when the military officers and oligarchy backed him -- and so did Henry Kissinger and others here.

    Pinochet then carried out brutal repression and a terrible dictatorship. It was not him alone.

    I may do research into the wealthy around him. I know there were tremendous anti-Semitism among the German establishment. And they also wanted to suppress the enormous social upsurge that was going on in the early 1930s -- much due to the economic crisis.

  18. This is a great read. Having actual real-life characters to relate to somehow makes the whole Nazi build-up and events leading up to WWII more real and certainly more tangible. I have read about these events all my life, but this book somehow gave me a totally unique perspective that lead to a much deeper understanding of how it must have felt to be there during that time.