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A Man Without Breath: The Award-Winning Historical Thriller by Philip Kerr

Philip Kerr: A Man Without Breath

Philip Kerr was a Scottish author who wrote several bestselling novels in various genres, such as historical fiction, thriller, crime, and spy. He is best known for his series of books featuring Bernie Gunther, a former police detective who becomes a private investigator in Nazi Germany and post-war Europe. One of these books is A Man Without Breath, which was published in 2013 and is the ninth installment in the series.

philip kerr man without breath


A Man Without Breath is a gripping historical mystery that takes place in 1943, at the height of World War II. It follows Bernie Gunther as he investigates a mass grave of Polish officers near Smolensk, Russia, which could be used by Nazi propaganda to discredit their Soviet allies. However, he soon discovers that there is more to this case than meets the eye, and that he is in a dangerous position between rival factions within the German army and government.

The plot of the book

The book begins with Bernie Gunther working in Berlin for the War Crimes Bureau, a department that deals with atrocities committed by both sides during the war. He is weary, cynical, and disillusioned with his job and his country, but he still has a sense of justice and morality. He is assigned to accompany a team of forensic experts to Smolensk, where a local farmer has reported finding a large pit filled with corpses wearing Polish uniforms.

The corpses are believed to be those of Polish officers who were captured by the Soviets in 1939, after they invaded Poland along with Germany. The Nazis suspect that they were executed by the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, in what became known as the Katyn massacre. They hope to use this evidence to expose their enemies' brutality and to drive a wedge between them and their Western allies.

Bernie Gunther arrives in Smolensk with his colleagues and meets with Colonel von Moltke, a Prussian aristocrat who is in charge of the operation. He also encounters several other characters who have their own agendas and interests in this case, such as General von Brauchitsch, who wants to negotiate a separate peace with Russia; Major Hartmann, who is secretly working for Reinhard Heydrich's successor; Captain Gregor Neumann, who is Bernie's friend and ally; Lieutenant Pfarrer, who is Bernie's rival and enemy; and Noreen Charalambides, who is an American journalist posing as a Greek nurse.

As Bernie Gunther investigates the mass grave, he faces many obstacles and dangers. He has to deal with the harsh weather, the hostile locals, the corrupt officials, and the ruthless killers. He also has to cope with his own conscience, as he witnesses the horrors of war and the crimes of his own countrymen. He soon realizes that he is not only looking for the truth, but also for a way to survive.

The historical context of the book

A Man Without Breath is based on real historical events and characters, and it provides a vivid and accurate portrayal of the Eastern Front during World War II. The Eastern Front was the largest and bloodiest theater of war, where millions of soldiers and civilians died or suffered from starvation, disease, and violence. It was also the scene of some of the most notorious atrocities and war crimes committed by both sides, such as the Holocaust, the Siege of Leningrad, and the Battle of Stalingrad.

The book focuses on one of these atrocities, the Katyn massacre, which was one of the most controversial and disputed incidents of the war. The Katyn massacre was the mass execution of about 22,000 Polish officers and intellectuals by the Soviet NKVD in 1940. The victims were buried in several mass graves in Katyn Forest and other locations near Smolensk. The Soviets denied any responsibility for the massacre and blamed it on the Nazis, who discovered the graves in 1943 and used them for propaganda purposes. The truth about the massacre was suppressed for decades by both sides, until it was finally acknowledged by the Soviet Union in 1990.

The book also depicts the Nazi propaganda machine, which was led by Joseph Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda. Goebbels was a master of manipulation and deception, who used various media forms, such as newspapers, radio, film, and posters, to spread Nazi ideology and to influence public opinion. He also used propaganda to justify Nazi aggression and to demonize their enemies. He was particularly interested in exploiting the Katyn massacre to undermine the Soviet credibility and to weaken their alliance with Britain and America.

The themes and messages of the book

A Man Without Breath is not only a thrilling and entertaining read, but also a thought-provoking and insightful one. It explores several themes and messages that are relevant for today's readers and society, such as:

  • War crimes and justice: The book raises questions about who is responsible for war crimes and how they should be punished. It also shows how war crimes are often covered up or distorted by propaganda and politics. It challenges the readers to think about how they would react if they were in Bernie Gunther's shoes, and how they would balance their duty with their conscience.

  • Loyalty and survival: The book examines how loyalty is tested and compromised in times of war and crisis. It shows how loyalty can be divided between different groups, such as country, family, friends, or ideology. It also shows how loyalty can be betrayed or manipulated for personal gain or survival. It makes the readers wonder who they would trust and who they would betray in such situations.

  • Humor and cynicism: The book demonstrates how humor and cynicism can be used as coping mechanisms or defense mechanisms in face of adversity and horror. It shows how humor can lighten up the mood, relieve tension, or express irony. It also shows how cynicism can protect oneself from disappointment, disillusionment, or guilt. It invites the readers to appreciate Bernie Gunther's witty remarks and sarcastic comments, but also to understand his bitter attitude and pessimistic outlook.

The style and tone of the book

A Man Without Breath is written in a style and tone that reflect both the genre and the character of Bernie Gunther. The style is fast-paced, engaging, and descriptive. The author uses short sentences, vivid details, and realistic dialogue to create a sense of urgency, suspense, and immersion. The author also uses various literary devices, such as foreshadowing, flashbacks, metaphors, and similes, to enhance the plot, the setting, and the mood.

The tone is dark, gritty, and humorous. The author does not shy away from depicting the brutality and cruelty of war and its effects on people. The author also does not sugarcoat or glorify any side or perspective of the conflict. The author portrays both sides as flawed, corrupt, and violent. However, the author also injects humor into the story through Bernie Gunther's voice and personality. Bernie Gunther is a sarcastic, witty, and irreverent narrator who often makes jokes or remarks that lighten up the atmosphere or mock his enemies.

The reception and impact of the book



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