A Man Without Breath is Philip Kerr’s ninth book featuring Bernie Gunther, the left leaning sometimes private/sometimes police investigator in Nazi era Berlin. Kerr merges social history with the noir detective genre, with one pushing the other past their expected norms. This book is one of the best examples of how he delivers thrilling hard-boiled entertainment with bitter truths.
The novel starts out with cynical irony, Bernie having found a place for himself working as an investigator for Germany’s War Crimes Bureau. It’s a month after Stalingrad and morale is low. When news that the Russians have massacred over a hundred Poles in the Katyn Woods is received, he is sent to the nearby city of Smolensk to put a professional polish on a discovery they hope will break the Western alliance with Stalin.
The ground is too frozen to dig up the bodies, so Bernie is forced to wait. However, another case comes his way when the bodies of two signalers are found with their throats slit. While it’s assumed that partisans are involved, the crime scene tells Bernie it could be a fellow German. What he discovers could earn him more enemies from The Reich, including Hitler himself
As usual, Kerr gives us a reflection of people in an extreme political climate. Here it is when the German knight is dying in his armor. Those in high command doubt the Fuhrer, but few know who they can safely express those doubts too. Still, as the Reich begins to crumble, its bureaucracy survives; creating a cold hypocrisy that obliterates any common decency. However, an experienced civil servant like Bernie can negotiate it to pull him out of a jam as many times as his pistol.
The book also focuses on the German aristocracy of the time. Smolensk is an enclave for the Prussians who run the Werchmacht, a group of intermarrying upper-class barons for whom Bernie doesn’t hold his contempt. We’re reminded that not only is he navigating the Second World War but also is a survivor of the first, which was brought about by these types. Now they scoff at Hitler after they stop to refuse his ascent. As Bernie says, “You can’t expect the aristocracy to save society, when they’re concerned about little more than themselves.”
Even Bernie himself doesn’t escape a cold hard look, not that he ever does. I’ve always questioned if he truly is a hero, as someone who tries to do what right he can without trouble, but refuses to seriously go up against the establishment, since it would be suicidal. There is a point in A Man Without Breath where a great reveal is given. Bernie gets the information because a character believes he is the one to set things right. The passage is funny, dark, and ultimately heartbreaking as Bernie explains why this should be under wraps and why he doesn’t like to be burdened with it. After reading enough books in the series, you realize Bernie is a hero, but the backdrop he’s placed in demands him to be a survivor, making him something more complex and, if the reader is willing to admit, more relatable. He is the citizen who carries the sins of his country.
A Man Without Breath further proves the series’ brilliance in balancing suspense, character, period, and politics. It is a well-crafted genre tale using the idea of the tarnished knight on a quest of truth. The art that Kerr applies is the meaning of that quest in a place where truth is manipulated all the time. It’s what gives the modern contemplation to his historical fiction.