Brutal irony reigns in Philip Kerr’s latest novel
The idea of a War Crimes Bureau in Nazi Germany sounds like a very bad joke, but in fact there was one. It was run by conservative but Nazi-despising Prussian judges dedicated to the principle, upheld by the Geneva Convention, that there was a proper and honorable way for an army, even the German Wehrmacht, to fight a war. Obviously, it was not noticeably successful.
The bureau is the starting point for Philip Kerr’s A Man Without Breath (Putnam). Kerr’s reputation for World War II-era historical fiction is solidly built upon a series of novels about Bernie Gunther, who began literary life in 1989 as a police detective turned hard-boiled, wise-cracking private investigator in 1930s Germany in Kerr’s Berlin Noir trilogy, which has since stretched itself to nine novels and to at least as many countries. He is absolute master of the genre; no one writing in English bests him, not even Alan Furst.
The series, jumping backward and forward in time, has also stretched across two decades, from the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s, and across the Atlantic. Recent entries have found Gunther, at times, in Argentina and Cuba. His perilous peregrinations have forced him into many roles that he, a staunch anti-Nazi, never would have chosen, including SS officer and pawn in the postwar intrigues of several countries’ spy agencies.
The War Crimes Bureau proved useful to the Nazi regime in 1943 when reports surfaced of a mass grave in Katyn Forest in Russia supposedly containing the remains of thousands of Polish officers killed by Russians. If the reports proved true, it would be an enormous propaganda coup for the Third Reich, so Joseph Goebbels, the minister of propaganda, puts the bureau’s machinery into action.
And who better to do the investigating than Bernie Gunther? But Bernie is to find, as so often before, that truth can be an unwelcome commodity. The theme of all the novels is “trying to be a good man” in the midst of conditions that make it all but impossible. Here, for instance, he shoots to death a German soldier who threatens to expose incriminating evidence on Adolf Hitler because the exposure would lead to a greater immediate danger.
Morality is stood on its head and brutal irony reigns: When two German soldiers are hanged for the rape and murder of two peasant women, we are left to wonder along with Bernie: What is the point of prosecuting individual murders when mass murder is all around?
The accuracy and detail of time and place are simply exquisite and are deftly and unobtrusively worked into the narrative—things such as slang, power relationships, views of everyday life. Kerr’s description of the workings of a Mauser weapon, for instance, is not mere showing off, because solving the crime depends on such knowledge. His familiarity with, not only the personalities of real-life characters, but also their whereabouts at any particular time must cost him a staggering amount of research.
Beyond and deeper than that is what might be called the morality lesson. At his core Bernie, despite being appalled at what he has become, remains a once-and-future stoic white knight in the wisecracking Raymond Chandler mode, though life has thrown at Bernie blows to the physical, moral and emotional armor such as Philip Marlowe never had to face.
There is a tone or feeling to this novel different from the eight that preceded it. It is equally gritty and grim, but at the same time more ruminative. It works somewhat more as a police procedural than as wartime thriller.
Also, the romantic entanglement that is a part of every Gunther novel enters late and is shorter than those heretofore. This time it is a forensic pathologist from Breslau named Marianne Kramsta who finds Bernie perversely attractive.
By the time we have reached the 465th and final page we have had not only a stirring novel of World War II, but a deep immersion into the war’s history. Let’s hear it for a Gunther Novel No. 10!