Book review: A Man Without Breath by Philip Kerr

Bernie Gunther is back in this ninth book about his criminal investigations in Nazi-era Germany. The title is a bit tongue-in-cheek as one of Bernie’s most attractive features is his inability to hold back on his sharp, sarcastic comments which invariably cause trouble with his superiors.

A Man Without Breath by Philip Kerr

Quercus, 517pp, £18.99

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In this novel, he rubs shoulders with the leaders of the Third Reich, and his refusal to compromise on his policeman’s integrity gets him into hot water.

The story starts as dramatically as it ends. Bernie is trying to impress a lady by joining her friends in refusing to run for shelter during a bombing raid but hovering in the doorway just in case. The lintel saves his life. When he wakes up, he thinks the door is his coffin lid. The others needed real ones.

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Bernie works now for the Wehrmacht’s War Crimes Bureau, which exists under the Nazi regime as a public relations exercise to suggest that the regime has high standards. It is staffed by elderly Prussian judges dedicated to the Geneva Convention despite their dislike of the current regime. The Jewish hospital also still exists and features in the story operating for the good of its Jewish patients and staff.

Investigating the crimes committed by and against German soldiers with so much else going on around him rouses Bernie’s mordant sense of humour. As he says: “I don’t know how to describe a situation in which you can have an army corporal hanged for the rape of a Russian peasant girl in one village that’s only a few miles from where an SS special action group just murdered twenty-five thousand men, women and children.”

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Bernie finds it hard to “feel good about your homeland when so many of your fellow countrymen behave with such callous brutality.” In this topsy-turvy world, permanent resettlement is a euphemism for murder, but stealing from dead bodies is classified as theft not redistribution of wealth.

Gunther is ambivalent about the death penalty for a murderer he has brought to justice even as his countrymen are engaged in crimes greater than any courtroom has seen and all in an approved day’s work. He struggles with whether the murder of Hitler is justified even if it will save thousands of other lives.

It is these contradictions and challenges which change a good detective story into a fine piece of historical fiction. The research which lies behind this recreation of Nazi Germany is impressive even if it is hard to understand the different levels of Prussian aristocracy and the racial mix within the Polish population.

Gunther sets off, unwillingly, for Smolensk, a city he dislikes, where he has been ordered to investigate a mass grave which has just been discovered.

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His superiors expect him to declare that grave is filled by Polish soldiers killed by the Russians before they retreated. That would enable the Nazis to publicise this as a war crime. Bernie believes there are other explanations and that makes him unpopular.

The most likely explanation is that it is a grave of Jews murdered by the SS. If that turns out to be the truth, he is expected to walk away from the investigation but Bernie Gunther would never do that.

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One of the supposed advantages of his new job is that it allows him to rub shoulders with some of the Nazi elite – although in reality this makes it even more dangerous for Gunther. But it does allow Kerr to write a persuasive scene in which Joseph Goebbels is being interviewed that only partly endorses the stereotype figure we read about elsewhere.

Towards the end, Gunther’s willingness to be an honest detective gets him into serious difficulty. His life is saved dramatically, if somewhat unrealistically by a senior figure of the Third Reich.

This is a very worthy successor to Kerr’s series, keeping the same hard-boiled, controversial detective but giving him a fresh role in the history of the Third Reich.