Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Review of A Man Without Breath by Philip Kerr (Quercus, 2013)

It’s winter 1943 and former Berlin cop, Bernie Gunther, is working for the German War Crimes Bureau investigating supposed crimes committed by Allied forces.  Rumours are starting circulate about a  grave of Polish officers in woods outside of Smolensk and Gunther is flown from Berlin into German occupied Russia to investigate.  The area is littered with mass graves, not all of which the German’s want to be discovered.  But if the rumour is true then it could prove to be a useful piece of propaganda which can used to drive a wedge between Russia and its allies.  The grave, however, turns out to be just one problem for Gunther to deal with, along with disgruntled and plotting senior officers and the murder of two local signals operators.  Matters are not helped by the detective’s gruff style and his ability to rub people up the wrong way.  With the Russians set to advance on their positions, Gunther needs to oversee the grave excavations, solve the local murders and move to safer terrain.

I’m a great fan of the Bernie Gunther series.  I’ve read all nine books, buying the last few in the first weeks of release.  A Man Without Breath is a solid enough addition to Bernie’s story, though it is by no means Kerr’s best work.  Kerr writes with a very strong and engaging hardboiled voice.  His characters are vivid, the historical and social contextualisation and sense of place are excellent.  And so it is with A Man Without Breath.  There are three issues with the story, however, that undermine its telling somewhat.  The first is Kerr has tried to cram in too many plotlines and incidents - the Katyn woods massacre and subsequent German propaganda, the plot to kill Hitler by Wehrmacht officers, the Rosenstrasse demonstration by German wives at the arrest of their Jewish husbands, the Gleiwitz incident that started the Second World War, Spanish Fascist experiments on Republican prisoners, several murders that occur whilst Gunther investigates the Katyn massacre, and a love affair.  Any two of these would have been sufficient hooks for a strong, tight plot, but the combination of all of them leads to a bit of a muddle.  Second, the book is overly long (over 500 pages in hardback) and not just because of the plotlines -- several passages could have been tightened up or deleted as they were largely redundant to the plot.  Third, Kerr has Gunther murder a relatively innocent character in cold blood when there were other solutions.  Bernie is no saint, but his appeal is that he has a strong moral compass in a corrupt regime and the people he tangles with are mostly monsters; he witnesses, investigates and avenges war crimes, but he doesn’t commit them.  The action bumped me firmly out of the story and changed my whole view of the character.  The effect of these three issues were to deaden the read, which was a shame, as given the place, time and themes of the book this had the potential to be excellent.  Regardless, it’s an interesting and mostly enjoyable read and I look forward to the next instalment in Bernie’s adventures.

No comments: