A Man Without Breath

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46041_AManWithoutBreath_Jkt.inddWritten by Philip Kerr — Bernie Gunther is a cynical, tough German cop. A veteran of The Great War, he has experienced hell on earth, but the German invasion of Russia in 1941 has triggered another armageddon in this, the ninth novel in the series by Philip Kerr.

As Hitler’s Eastern Front strategy starts to unravel, Gunther is sent to Smolensk to investigate a war crime. A born and bred Berliner, he has worked for Kripo, the state criminal investigation branch, and done a spell as the house detective at the city’s top hotel. However now he wears the uniform of the Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau. Under instruction from none other than Joseph Goebbels, Gunther is entrusted with proving that the four thousand corpses lying frozen beneath the trees of the Katyn Forest are those of Polish officers murdered by the Russian NKVD, and not those of Jews murdered by the SS.

Kerr takes us into a world of petty jealousies, snobbery, and visceral fear. The Junkers who plot Hitler’s downfall are too gentlemanly and aloof to be of much use to anyone, and the citizens of Smolensk avoid upsetting their German captors while keeping themselves clean enough to appease the vengeful Red Army just a few hundred kilometres away.

This is a story within a story. The Katyn Forest murders are a matter of historical record. Today we know who killed who, but while Gunther has his suspicions, he must to balance this enquiry with something much more personal and immediate. Bodies are found. Throats are cut. As the corpse count mounts, he realises that the signallers who are Gunther’s only link between Smolensk and his Berlin bosses are in it up to their necks.

Gunther commits an act which places him the width of a cigarette paper away from those he reviles. He constantly plays the role of the decent man, but in the end, he follows one theology, and one theology only. If he wakes up the next day with his head firmly attached to his shoulders, and has feeling in his extremities, then he has done the right thing. His conscience has not died, but it is far from well; it competes a whole chorale of competing voices in his head, each wishing to be heard. As he is left helpless by the world of spin and disinformation orchestrated by Dr Goebbels, he must resort to his basic copper’s instincts to protect himself and uncover the truth.

Bernie Gunther fans await new episodes with something like the anticipation reserved for a messiah, and will pick up the story from page one as he’d never been away. New readers will be delighted by the way in which Gunther’s blunt and matter-of-fact narrative manages to describe a complex web of deceit, distrust and political intrigue within the apparently united front of Nazi Germany. The aristocratic Prussian generals despise Hitler; the ethnic Poles are not sure who to loathe more – the Germans or the Russians; the regular army have complete contempt for the Gestapo, and the Russian secret police make the SS look like choirboys.

The book works brilliantly on so many levels. Kerr’s historical research is forensic and breathtaking, but his real skill is that we see the monsters of the Third Reich not just through the eyes of a historian, but through the eyes of a man who has to work for them while trying to keep his own honour and self-esteem intact. Philip Kerr is, quite simply, in a class of his own, and it was with a deep sigh of regret that I turned the last page and closed the book. It is a modern masterpiece.


CFL Rating: 5 stars

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