Imagine you are the American ambassador to Germany in the mid-1930s, the official go-between for F.D.R. and Adolf Hitler. To complicate matters you are not a career politician, but rather a lifelong academic who took the post (after originally petitioning for an ambassadorship in Brussels or another out-of-the-way European capital) as a sinecure in order to finish your magnum opus. This was the plight of William Dodd, the protagonist of In the Garden of Beasts.

I was surprised to read that Dodd did not believe that war was imminent in Europe. One of his main goals was to ensure that Germany continued to repay its debts resulting from WWI.

Perhaps the most interesting section of the book (chapter 31) details how the Dodd family responded to German surveillance. Not only were their phones tapped and their mail opened; they also suspected their household staff of spying for the German government. In this day of (sadly) ever-present government surveillance, including the U.S. government toward its own citizens, it was almost refreshing to read of a family whose members were shocked by such behavior.

For a work detailing such a dark time, this book also contains moments of levity. For instance, Ernst Hanfstaengl (“Naziism’s foremost political pianist”) is said to have described Hitler as “resembl[ing] a suburban barber on his day off.”

Readers of Beasts will also enjoy the other Larson book that I recently reviewed, Dead Wake, as well as Devil in the White City.