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A Man Without Breath

German detective Bernie Gunther is back, to investigate an unspeakable atrocity.

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Evidence of a Russian massacre of Polish officers is what the Wehrmacht and propaganda master Joseph Goebbels, for different reasons, desire. Such an atrocity could rupture the Alliance, isolate Russia, reinvigorate German troops, and soften the victors' view of Nazi war crimes. No wonder that Gunther, his investigation hardly begun, is summoned to the Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, where his eye, as usual, misses nothing. "As Goebbels limped into the room," he observes, "I stood up and saluted in the customary way and he flapped a delicate little hand back over his shoulder in imitation of the way the Leader did it – as if swatting an irritating mosquito, or dismissing some sycophant..."

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The sketch of Goebbels is one of many superb portraits. Kerr has obviously immersed himself in the manners and speech of this period, and his details are always telling; they reveal both the essence of a character, whether minor or infamous, and the texture of events long calcified into legend. The repeated attempts to assassinate Hitler, for example, woven artfully into the plot, expose the desperation of the time and the nature of the Prussian aristocrats involved. "They were just careless people…." Gunther observes of the officers. "It was their carelessness that had allowed Hitler to take possession of the country in 1933; and through their carelessness they had failed to remove him now...."  

By the time he reaches this conclusion, Gunther has killed. and almost been killed, in Smolensk. (He also falls in love, but this is brief and doomed.) Even as the mass grave of Polish officers is excavated, fresh murders demand his attention; two German telephonists on duty during a brief visit by Hitler are found dead (what did they overhear?), and a key witness in the Katyn massacre case is murdered. Crimes new and old, corruption personal and political, conspiracies of all kinds: Kerr eases these components into place with his usual dexterity. But "A Man Without Breath," for all its intricacy and spark, is also Kerr's most contemplative – and substantial – novel to date.  More gray than noir. The gray of ashes.

Anna Mundow, a longtime contributor to The Irish Times and The Boston Globe, has written for The Guardian, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, among other publications.

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