Bernie Gunther is back. He has worn numerous hats during this long running series by Philip Kerr; police detective, hotel detective, soldier, fake physician and in this latest book, “A Man Without Breath,” he’s a war crimes investigator.
Gunther is German. In the 1930s he was a homicide detective in Berlin when the Nazis came to power. He has never been a member of the Nazi Party. As the years passed he managed to survive, just barely.
This is the ninth book in this series. It opens on March 1, 1943. The tide of battle has begun to turn. One month earlier the Soviet Red Army routed the once invincible German Army at Stalingrad. The German occupiers along the Eastern Front are getting nervous. They realize that soon a vengeful Red Army will come sweeping through them.
The Germans make a shocking discovery in the Soviet region outside Smolensk. A wolf in the Katyn Forest was gnawing on what look to be human remains. In Berlin Propaganda Minister Goebbels is hoping that this gruesome news can be something that will be turned to their advantage.
He gives Bernie this assignment; go to Smolensk and find out who is actually buried at Katyn. Bernie had left the police force the year before to join the Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau. Scholars of history will understand the significance of Katyn. It is the place where the Red Army executed thousands of Polish Army officers and secretly buried them in mass graves a few years before that.
Devotees of Kerr’s series will anticipate that some predictable circumstances will transpire; Bernie will get sucked into a murder investigation, he will fall for a beautiful but ultimately unattainable woman and he will make some morally ambiguous choices. These things usually happen to him.
Bernie arrives in Smolensk and assesses the situation. He determines a number of things. The man in charge there, Field Marshall von Kluge, is an old fashioned member of the Prussian nobility. He likes to hunt and he has developed a special relationship with a Russian named Alok Dyakov, a man who seems to know the best places to hunt.
Bernie visits Katyn and verifies that hideous war crimes have transpired there. The Germans begin to unearth the mass graves.
Autopsies are ordered for those unfortunates who are being unearthed.
One of the people who is brought in to perform autopsies is Dr. Marianne Kramsta. Bernie observes that she “was wearing a very fetching gray crepe dress with a matching belt and long sleeves, and while she looked good, the plain fact of the matter is that she would have looked good wearing a truck tarpaulin.”
Our investigator has a discerning eye for beauty. He is smitten with Dr. Kransta. The attraction appears to be mutual. But Philip Kerr never allows Bernie’s amorous dalliances to last too long. A couple of new murder victims, German soldiers, turn up along a roadside. Bernie, the former homicide cop, investigates these fresher crimes.
He uncovers a trove of dark secrets. Kerr just keeps raising the ante with this series. And this is the best book yet.
THE WEEK’S BOOK
“A Man Without Breath” by Philip Kerr (Marian Wood/Putnam, 465 pages, $26.95)