A Miriam Wood Book/Putnam/Penguin, $26.95, 465 pages, ISBN 978-0-399-16079-0
A nation without religion—that is like a man without breath.–Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany, 1933-45. He had total control of the press, radio and all aspects of German culture during that time. It was his job to make the Nazi Army look as good as possible, while at the same time, making Germany’s many enemies look as bad as possible. It was Goebbels who suppressed all the information about the Holocaust from the world. He, like most of the rest of the Nazi warlords, committed suicide in 1945, rather than surrender to the Allied forces and face a war crimes tribunal.
In this weeks MBR No. 119, A Man Without Breath (Bernie Gunther) by Philip Kerr, we find serial protagonist Bernie Gunther, in Smolensk, USSR, investigating a mass murder of Polish Army Officers by the Soviets at a place called the Katyn Forest. Bernie Gunther, an ex-Berlin Homicide Detective, is attached to the German War Crimes Bureau, supposedly independent, but answerable to Goebbels. He’s been sent there as a credible investigator, tasked with proving that four thousand Poles were systematically shot by the NKVD (later called the KGB, the infamous Soviet spy and torture agency) and buried in mass graves. It’s March, 1943, just one month since the stunning defeat of the German Wehrmacht at Stalingrad and army moral is low. The defeat is as yet unknown in Germany, where Hitler and Goebbels are claiming that Germany is winning the war. Bernie Gunther and all the other front line officers know that, contrary to all the propaganda, the war is lost. They know too, that Red Army forces are massing around the defeated, retreating German forces at a place called Kursk, a few hundred kilometers North of their position at Smolensk . . . and that they’re greatly outnumbered. There’s not much time left before the expected bloodbath and Gunther is in a hurry to complete his work and return to Berlin and it’s safer, for the time being, environment. Trouble is however, that an intelligent and resourceful serial killer is also operating in the area. The killer keeps murdering witnesses and destroying key pieces of evidence, and Bernie’s departure keeps getting pushed back because he’s the only experienced, competent homicide investigator in the area, and therefore given the job of solving the homicides. His job is made nearly impossible by the discovery of other mass graves containing the bodies of thousands of Polish Jews; men, women and children, murdered by the German SS and special execution squads. This novel is all the more chilling because it is based on historical fact. Bernie Gunther is “A Man Without Breath,” his religious beliefs destroyed by the horrors of war, and his patriotism wiped away by the highjacking of his country in 1933, when the National Socialist, or Nazi party took over. A Man Without Breath is a complex, intelligent, historically accurate novel written with a precise and delicate touch on a sprawling canvas. Phillip Kerr is the best in the business of historical fiction . . . and a master of the most epochal couple of decades in all of world history. Don’t miss reading his wonderful series of novels featuring Bernie Gunther, a man forced into a war he doesn’t believe in by a government he despises.