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A Man Without Breath (A Bernie Gunther Novel) Hardcover – April 16, 2013
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*Starred Review* As we learn more about what Bernie Gunther, the Berlin cop turned PI turned reluctant SS member, really did in the war—particularly his experiences on the bloody, atrocity-riddled eastern front—a common theme emerges: staying alive. Bernie despises Nazis, of course, but he’s no friend of the Communists, either, and, for that matter, the British just happen to be bombing the hell out of his hometown. It’s 1943—after Stalingrad—and every ordinary German, in the service or not, knows the war is going badly. Bernie is just hoping to survive the end game when he is sent to Smolensk, where evidence has surfaced of the massacre of Polish officers by the Red Army in the Katyn Forest. The German propaganda machine, led by Joseph Goebbels, could use a good story, and this has the makings of one. Bernie’s job is to monitor the exhumation of the mass graves, try to find witnesses to the atrocity, and feed reports to Goebbels. But there’s a problem: there’s a murderer in Smolensk who seems to want to kill everyone with something to say. And then there’s the matter of a new plot to assassinate Hitler fomenting among the Wehrmacht’s old guard. Bernie, naturally, is caught in the middle of it all, with no horse in the race except solving the case in front of him and saving his own skin. Once again, Kerr vividly captures the excruciating moral ambiguity of Bernie’s position, driving home the point that cynicism is the only sane reaction for a man on the wrong side of history. Superb as always. --Bill Ott
Praise for A Man Without Breath
“This is the most intelligent brand of crime fiction, and there is moral complexity here in spades.”—The Daily Beast
“A Man Without Breath is a masterful accomplishment that delivers a gripping mystery wrapped around meticulously researched history…It brings the deadly past to life.”—The Arizona Republic
“Kerr just keeps raising the ante with this series. And this is the best book yet.”—Dayton Daily News
“One of these days World War II will come to an end, and then how will we manage without Bernie Gunther, the cynical Berlin cop who has somehow contrived to stay alive and retain some vestige of personal integrity in Philip Kerr’s harrowing historical thrillers?”—The New York Times Book Review
“This ninth Bernie Gunther tale (after Prague Fatale) focuses on two months of 1943, mixing real-life characters with fictional ones. Kerr’s historical knowledge and writing skills merge these elements seamlessly in a gripping story of murder, but it is Bernie who holds it all together even as he questions the absurdity of attempting normalcy during war. Mystery, historical fiction, and military history buffs will join existing Bernie fans in welcoming this latest installment in the series.”—Library Journal
“Captivating . . . Kerr makes everything look easy, from blending history with a clever and intricate whodunit plot to powerful descriptions of cruelty.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Kerr’s sketch of Goebbels dazzles. The author pulls the reader down into the dark underground of Der Führer’s rabbit hole of totalitarian horror . . . [A Man Without Breath] masterfully explores morality's shadowy gray edge.”—Kirkus
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Nazi Germany’s War Crimes Bureau
Though it might seem improbable, the Wehrmacht operated a War Crimes Bureau from 1939 to 1945. Ostensibly, the purpose of this organization was to uncover war crimes committed not just by the Allies but by Nazi Germany as well. Of course, it’s no surprise that records of the bureau’s inquiries into mass murder by the Wehrmacht (or, much more often, the SS) did not survive the war. Those that brought to light atrocities by the Allies did survive — but most were classified and hidden away by the US Government until 1975, when they were belatedly passed along to West German officials.
The Katyn Massacre: a high-profile investigation
Unlike most of the bureau’s discoveries, the investigation into the mass murder known as the Katyn Massacre surfaced quickly, because the government of Nazi Germany had seen fit to invite investigators from the International Red Cross and non-German journalists onto the scene as the bodies were unearthed. Clearly, the Nazis saw this operation as a potential propaganda bonanza at a time when their armies were staggering toward defeat on the Eastern front. This is the subject of A Man Without Breath. Former Berlin homicide detective Bernie Gunther is assigned by propaganda minister Josef Goebbels, no less, to manage the investigation from behind the scenes.
Murders, murders everywhere
Bernie runs into resistance soon after he arrives on the scene in Smolensk. The local military police, the Gestapo, and even the commanding general, Field Marshall Gunther von Kluge, resent his role. Only Goebbels’ protection allows him to operate at all. Gradually, however, he finds a handful of allies, including an aristocratic colonel who hopes to assassinate Hitler and a beautiful ex-Communist doctor brought to examine the unearthed bodies. Meanwhile, however, Bernie finds himself drawn into investigating a series of ghastly murders that come to light as the inquiry into the massacre moves forward. Are these murders in some way connected to the massacre itself? Perhaps. We’ll see.
A story full of historical figures
As in the other books in Philip Kerr’s masterful Bernie Gunther series, the cast of characters includes many historic figures. Field Marshall von Kluge, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, as well as Goebbels and a host of lesser-known officials in World War II Germany appear on the scene. Even Adolf Hitler lurks behind the curtain, stage right, in a critical episode in the novel.
The plot of A Man Without Breath is less interesting than the history it brings to light. Though the focus is squarely on the Katyn Massacre, the novel illustrates vividly how the NKVD as well as the Gestapo operated during the Spanish Civil War and the broader war that followed. We see how von Kluge and other senior members of the Wehrmacht General Staff were personally bribed by Hitler to ensure their loyalty. And we learn that the celebrated 1944 attempt to assassinate Hitler was just one of as many as fifteen different such plots in which Admiral Canaris and other senior officers participated. This is history learned the easy way. Philip Kerr is a first-class writer.
The action takes place in March 1943, the German armies have been stopped at Stalingrad, and Gunther has been seconded to the German War Crimes Bureau in Berlin. The Bureau was created to investigate possible war crimes by the Allies or Russia. Any such events were then to be utilised by the Propaganda Ministry of Dr Goebbels to undermine Allied war effort. Gunther is called upon to travel to Smolensk to investigate a possible war crime in the nearby forest of Katyn. The investigation must be handled with great care and veracity and there are many for whom this is not welcome.
Many of the essential ingredients of a good Gunther story are to be found here, with events woven around real-life characters from the Nazi Reich and a background of true historical detail. The writing of Phillip Kerr is wonderfully visual and the reader will have little trouble picturing all the action in his mind’s eye. As we have come to expect, Kerr’s writing style and construction are worthy of any first-rate modern literary fiction.
Very strongly recommended to all Gunther fans without reservation and to all those readers not yet familiar with these excellent books.