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Kerr, Philip - 'A Man Without Breath'
Hardback: 384 pages (Mar. 2013) Publisher: Quercus ISBN: 1780876246

A MAN WITHOUT BREATH is the ninth book in the Bernie Gunther series. This series, which has previously taken the reader from the difficult days of Weimar Germany through the Second World War to the post-war period of Peron's Argentina and pre-Castro Cuba, returns in this volume to wartime Europe. It is 1943 and Bernie is working for the Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau investigating the sinking of a German hospital ship by a British submarine. Bernie gets the only survivor, Franz Meyer, a Jew, released by the Gestapo in order to give evidence, but his witness is tragically rendered useless due to injuries sustained during a RAF bombing raid.

Either way I was better off than Siv Meyer and her sisters, who were all dead. The only survivors of that night were me and Franz, who was in the Jewish hospital. Where else? The bigger surprise was that there was a Jewish hospital in the first place.

Bernie meets with his boss Judge Johannes Goldsche, and Hans von Dohnanyi, deputy head of the Abwehr's central section. (The Abwehr is German Military Intelligence Service - virtual enemies of the Gestapo and SS.)

They discuss currency smuggling to help a group of Jews escape to Switzerland, and the information that a wolf has dug up human remains at Gnezdovo in an area of thick forest west of Smolensk.

The Soviet government has assured the Polish prime minister in exile, General Sikorski, that all Polish prisoners of war were freed in 1940, after having been transported to Manchuria, and the Soviets have simply lost track of many of the men because of the war, but it seems clear to our sources in London that the Poles do not believe them.

Bernie is sent to discover which of the five reasons for the presence of bodies in Katyn Wood that von Dohnanyi lists, is the truth? Bernie adds a sixth alternative reason, but then that is because he is an honest cop. The hanging of two German soldiers for the rape and murder of Russian peasant women only a few miles from where an SS action group murdered thousands of innocent men, women and children, seems a bizarre irony and increases Bernie's contempt for the Prussian aristocrats who run Army Group Centre at Smolensk.

A MAN WITHOUT BREATH is a meticulously researched, superb crime fiction story set on several levels, because when Bernie reaches Smolensk he is involved in investigating the murder of German soldiers, and surrounded by plots to assassinate Hitler, as well as the investigation of the mass murder in Katyn Wood. The Prussian aristocrats had once welcomed Hitler as he ranted about Jews and Bolsheviks, but now, after the defeat at Stalingrad they want to remove him and obtain a negotiated peace with the Allies. Joseph Goebbels hopes to use the propaganda weapon of the war crime at Katyn to sever the alliance between the democracies and the Soviet dictatorship. That is why he wants a subtle skilful investigator like Bernie on the case.

Philip Kerr blends real history and real historical characters seamlessly in with his fictional wisecracking Berlin detective, Bernie Gunther. And once again he masters the art of getting the reader to possibly laugh and cry on the same page.

Von Dohnanyi coloured a little. You don't get a lot of sarcasm in the concert hall or the Imperial Court, and I doubt he'd spoken to a real policeman since 1928 when, like every other aristocrat, he'd applied for a firearm permit so he could shoot wild boar and the odd Bolshevik.

This is a very political book featuring some of the most obnoxious and hypocritical characters ever to have walked the earth, and it is a tale of villains falling out with each other. Bernie is given plenty to keep him busy in this story with the mass murder, six other murders, a beautiful forensic pathologist to seduce, German generals with red strips down their trousers and vons in front of their names to placate, and the always present threat from the Soviets and the NKVD.

This novel might not be everyone's cup of tea but I found it easy to read this brilliant example of historical crime fiction, probably because I don't worry too much about fanatics and mass murderers from the past, more about those here in the present. This Bernie Gunther novel gives the reader an entertaining detective in a fascinatingly bleak setting along with several mysteries. But most importantly it is an important educational resource as the reader realises that many of the horrid characters were real people, and most of the terrible crimes were real crimes.

"And I thought Hitler was bad".
Batov smiled. "Hitler is just a minor demon in hell, but Stalin is the devil himself."

Philip Kerr won the 2009 CWA Ellis Peters Award for Best Historical Crime Novel for IF THE DEAD RISE NOT. A MAN WITHOUT BREATH is likely to be a strong contender for the 2013 Ellis Peters Historical Dagger.

Norman Price, England
March 2013

Norman blogs at
Crime Scraps.

Details of the author's other books with links to reviews can be found on the Books page.
More European crime fiction reviews can be found on the Reviews page.

last updated 15/03/2013 09:40