Book review: ‘A Man Without Breath’

Sun SentinelMay 4, 2013 

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"A Man Without Breath" by Philip Kerr.

  • Fiction A Man Without Breath Philip Kerr

    Putnam, 480 pages

Most historical thrillers set against the background of World War II focus on the Allied side. But Scottish author Philip Kerr’s novels about Berlin cop Bernie Gunther go behind the scenes of German life during and after WWII. Written out of sequence, these richly plotted novels are mainstays of best-sellers lists.

In “A Man Without Breath,” Kerr again expertly explores complex moral dilemmas in an immoral society. Bernie struggles daily to keep his soul intact away from true evil and to bring at least a smidgen of order where chaos rules.

Bernie is no Nazi sympathizer, and his refusal to compromise his integrity drives Kerr’s solid plots. Kerr’s meticulous research delivers myriad surprises about life under the Third Reich while smoothly melding with an intense thriller supported by realistic characters.

The ninth Bernie novel is set during the spring of 1943. Now attached to the decades-old Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau, Bernie is sent to investigate the mass graves of Polish officers discovered in the nearby Katyn Wood. The assignment is fraught with politics and propaganda.

Bernie is pressured by Josef Goebbels to attribute the deaths to the Soviets. Goebbels plans to use that to further German propaganda. Bernie has barely begun to “establish a perimeter of safe inquiry” when his investigation takes another direction. A killer begins targeting Germans. Bernie’s belief that the killer is another highly trained German soldier puts him in another precarious situation with the Gestapo.

By bringing the war down to the level of the individual, Kerr deftly illustrates why each death mattered, even when so many were lost. Kerr also smoothly portrays the despicable inner circle of the Third Reich without making them caricatures.

“A Man Without Breath” is an engrossing story that examines brutality at its most horrific.

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