Friday, 29 November 2013

Philip Kerr: A Man Without Breath

Philip Kerr seems to be sticking with the idea of keeping his Bernie Gunther stories simple, or at least respecting the Aristotelian unities. A Man Without Breath picks about a year after Prague Fatale, when Bernie has bounced into the otherworldly irony of a job in the Wehrmacht's War Crimes Unit. Before you ask, no, they're not there to make sure that War Crimes happen in a suitably efficient way. They're there to investigate and document the war crimes the Allies are committing against Germans. I couldn't decide whether Kerr was tickled by the irony that such a thing even existed, or was pursuing his earlier agenda of reminding us that the war didn't so much have good guys and bad guys as winners and losers. 

Bernie starts off trying to get himself a witness to the British sinking of a German hospital ship, but before long he finds himself dragged into the German investigation of the Katyn Wood massacre. By 1943, when the Germans tripped over thousands of Polish officers butchered by the Russians in 1939, German massacres in the same area had been so extensive that the initial reaction seems to have been to put someone on a charge for failing to kick enough dirt over his work. Once it dawned on them that they'd found one of the few mass graves in the neighbourhood they hadn't filled themselves, it seemed like a propaganda dream come true, and Goebbels mobilised an international tribunal of investigation into the beastly doings of the Bolsheviks. Meanwhile the SS was murdering 13,000 Jews in the Warsaw ghetto uprising, so it's borderline miraculous that the gravitational pull from Goebbels' balls didn't pull the moon out of its orbit.

Bernie is, thus, and as usual, neck deep in gothic levels of moral confusion even before he starts dicking about with day to day corruption in the German High Command and the hapless efforts by what was left of the Prussian military aristocracy to schwack Hitler. As I've often said, even bad people hated Hitler. Turns out effete snobs hated him too, despite the danger and their own lack of native talent for plotting anything more complicated than pouring piss out of a boot. Bernie's effortless talent for annoying the powerful ensures that he's on the wrong end of literally every single one of the plots which collide in his neighbourhood, and by the time the book reaches its anti-climax, he's so screwed that the only way Kerr can save him is get Admiral Canaris to walk in from off-stage like the world's creepiest spymaster deus ex machina. Never has the sheer improbability of Bernie's continuing survival been more shabbily apparent, and I was suddenly unsurprised that Kerr is taking a break from Bernie to write another of his high concept pot-boilers.

However, in happy news for women everywhere, finally a woman who Bernie has had sex with gets out of  a book alive. 

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