A Man without Breath

Written by Philip Kerr
Review by Lucille Cormier

One wouldn’t normally think of setting a murder mystery in as intense a location as Katyn Wood, where upwards of 4,000 Polish officers were executed by the Soviet NKVD in 1939. The bodies were exhumed from this wooded area near Smolensk, Russia by the occupying Nazi army in spring of 1943. Yet, Katyn Wood is exactly where author Philip Kerr places Bernie Gunther, former Berlin police detective assigned to the Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau with the specific task of finding out who was responsible for the Katyn Forest Massacre.

Gunther’s task is immediately complicated by being drawn into the investigation of the murder of two German communications officers. Though local Russians are hanged for the killing, the evidence points to someone from within the German camp. Gunther doggedly continues his hunt, piecing together a separate treachery that puts him within a hairsbreadth of his own execution.

The story is full of surprises, not the least of which is Bernie Gunther himself. A self-professed “simple Berlin cop,” he quotes the classics and references high art and music. He falls in love, he manhandles drunks; he also plays a deadly game of pragmatic justice against powerful foes. Gunther is the thread that ties together the massacre and murder investigation. The story is about him, but it is him immersed in the fears and doubts of many Germans in that time. The dawning awareness of treachery on both sides pervades the dialogue: the horror of Kursk, Katyn Wood itself, the revolt in the Vitebsk ghetto, the Spanish Holocaust, Babi Yar in Kiev, and even the Gleiwitz Incident of 1939.

A Man Without Breath is an intelligent and well-crafted story that keeps its pace up through all 480 pages. It’s an excellent addition to Kerr’s Berlin Noir/Bernie Gunther series – in other words, a top shelf historical mystery.