Friday, May 17, 2013

Soul Survivor: Philip Kerr’s A Man Without Breath

Somebody has to give a damn, otherwise we are no better than the criminals themselves.
– Bernie Gunter speaking in The Pale Criminal

Scottish writer Philip Kerr’s ninth Bernie Gunther novel, A Man Without Breath (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2013), has all the familiar trademarks of its predecessors: impeccable research and textured detail, an ability to weave history with a mystery, and to some extent, the unabashed sass and defiance of authority by the chief protagonist, the onetime homicide detective in Weimar Berlin. In The Pale Criminal (1990), Gunter displays that barbed wit when mocking Hitler’s Mein Kampf: “That funny old book they gave free to all newlyweds? It’s the best reason to stay single I can think of.” That hard-boiled sarcasm is one of Gunter’s weapons as an anti-Nazi German who never abandoned his belief in the democratic values of the Weimar Republic. He valiantly struggled to retain some semblance of his own humanity amid the inhumanity and immortality of National Socialist Germany, the Eastern Front during the Second World War, and postwar Vienna, Argentina, Cuba and Germany.

Gunther’s idiosyncratic moral code not deter him from dispensing rough justice or complying with the orders of the powerful men in Hitler’s inner circle that he despises. In The Pale Criminal, he executes a man responsible for the deaths of several young women. In A Man Without Breath, he kills a man who threatened to expose an assassination plot against Hitler, and he feels badly about it. In 1936 Berlin, the setting of March Violets (1989), he is caught in a power struggle between two Nazi rivals, Herman Goring and Heinrich Himmler. Reinhard Heydrich, second in command under the Gestapo chief, Himmler, offers the arrested Gunther a deal. He can save his life by going undercover into the hell of Dachau to interrogate a fellow prisoner, a safecracker who knows the whereabouts of politically sensitive documents that could incriminate Goring. (The indescribable horror of his experience in Dachau enabled Gunther to appreciate the “true strength of the grip that National Socialism had in Germany.”) In Prague Fatale (2011) it is 1941 and Heydrich, the newly-minted Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia, fears – with good reason since he is known as Hitler’s Hangman – that he could be assassinated and remembers Gunther. Despite Gunther’s Republican politics, Heydrich values his investigative skills as a detective and orders him to Prague to uncover the Czech spy within his inner circle and track down “terrorists” who are resisting Nazi domination. Gunther has no alternative but to accede to Heydrich’s commission. Yet Gunther could display a creative insubordination when negotiating the moral cesspool of the Third Reich. As an SS Lieutenant who is entrusted with presiding over a massacre of civilians, he requests a transfer to the front, is refused because of his age and time in the trenches during the Great War but is sent back home to be assigned to the War Crimes Bureau, a public relations exercise that will strike most readers as an oxymoron. 

Moral dilemmas are at the centre of Kerr’s most recent offering, A Man Without Breath. Joseph Goebbels, whom Gunther calls “Joey the Crip” since the limping Propaganda Minister has a noticeable clubfoot, doles out the orders. It’s the spring of 1943 and Gunther is a member of the War Crimes Bureau in Berlin. Rumours have surfaced that a mass grave contains the remains of Polish officers in the Katyn forest near Smolensk. (Katyn, a 2007 Polish film by the distinguished director, Andrzej Wajda, whose own father was one of the victims, is a powerful memorial to the victims of this massacre. Watch a pivotal scene here: ttps:// Goebbels is keen to pin the blame on the Soviets and secure a propaganda victory after the disastrous defeat of the German army at Stalingrad. He summons Gunther to his office to engage his investigative skills to determine whether this atrocity was the work of the Soviet security force, the NKVD. Goebbels is even willing to establish an international commission to excavate the graves and provide a patina of impartiality over which Gunther will preside. If the commission finds that the NKVD did execute the Polish soldiers, Goebbels will expose the mass killing and demonstrate to the world that only Germany stands between the barbaric Soviets and the West, a revelation that might rupture the Allied Alliance. If the killings have been perpetrated by the SS, the story will be repressed. Again Gunther submits to the order but, as he leaves Goebbels office, he feels a self-revulsion with inner voices accusing him of “cowardice and craven cooperation with a man and a government [he] loathed.” He recognizes that fear was the driving factor behind his decision. As a result, the qualities he abundantly displayed in earlier novels – the dry one-liners, his self-deprecating humour and the acidic contempt that he holds for the regime and its inner circle of potentates – are still present but have been muted and replaced by a quiet rage at the slaughter and madness of the world he inhabits. Consider Gunther’s caustic comments to a visiting judge: “There used to be a law against that sort of thing, you know. When people killed other people, we put them in prison. Of course, that was before the war.” Nonetheless, he remains committed to balancing the moral scales – self-preservation against committing the least amount of harm – in every action he undertakes. 

Even though facing moral conundrums is a recurring motif in Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series, it should be underscored that A Man Without Breath is both a layered historical novel and a murder mystery. Even readers familiar with the criminality on the Eastern Front will be surprised by the bizarre anomaly that while the SS special action group was murdering 25,000 men, women and children, two German soldiers were hanged a few kilometers away for raping and murdering two peasant Russian women. They may be aware of Soviet atrocities – the murder of thousands of Polish officers at Katyn is just one harrowing episode – that prompted Gunther to ruefully muse that “honour and duty have little place in a world that has a Stalin and Hitler in it.” Most readers are familiar with the savage horror of the Spanish Civil War but Kerr provides fresh and spine-chilling insight into it. Through one of the Spanish members of the international commission, he exposes how Franco’s Falangist Party deemed anyone leftist as both less-than-human and evil. In their concentration camps, doctors conducted experiments – which would rival those performed in the Nazi camps – in an effort to prove that republicans were animals. (Kerr astutely draws upon Paul Preston’s excellent The Spanish Holocaust, W. W. Norton & Sons, 2012).

Some readers may not have realized that the Prussian aristocrats at the military enclave near Smolensk were anything but committed National Socialists. One of the book’s startling revelations – that can be historically verified – is that one Wehrmacht commander received a huge bribe from Hitler himself to ensure his full support. Yet Gunther is contemptuous of these aristocrats dismissing them as “careless people” for allowing Hitler to seize the country and for failing to remove him. And he is presciently right given that several of these senior military personnel would become involved in the abortive July assassination plot against Hitler over a year later. In the meantime, Gunther has more pressing concerns as he needs to solve a rash of grisly murders, including a key witness to the Katyn massacre.

In the midst of the horror that is occurring in the killing fields, Kerr constructs a plausible murder mystery and Gunther is assigned to solve it. Initially, the German command believes that the murders are the work of partisans but the embattled former detective quickly dismisses that hypothesis. He believes the trail of evidence suggests another explanation, and that makes him very unpopular. When revealed, the identity of the killer makes logical sense given the novel’s larger context; true to form, Gunther solves the case. Considering that he came so close to dying at the outset and at its conclusion demonstrates that luck, perhaps more than skill, has enabled this defiant German Everyman to survive. Readers are grateful and can look forward to another Bernie Gunther installment.

(photo by Keith Penner)
Bob Douglas is a teacher and author. His second volume to That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2011), titled That Line of Darkness: Vol. II The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden, is available now. For more information, please visit

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