The one to read with a Russian map, a history book and a strong drink

Philip Kerr, The Man without Breath (2013)

This one is not for the faint-hearted, but if you have followed Bernie Gunther’s adventures so far (this is, gasp, the ninth book!), you’ll know what to expect: noir, noir, and more noir. There are times where you actually seek out the darker side of the mirror and want to send Polyanna back to La-la-land with marshmallows. Bernie Gunther is the ideal hero for these ventures into historical nightmares.

This book is set in 1943. Things are not turning out very well for the Nazis on the Eastern Front. This is the place to avoid at all costs if you’re lucky enough not to be a soldier, and Bernie Gunther has found the weirdest job possible, working as an investigator for the Wehrmacht War Crime bureau. Apparently such a Bureau existed in real life and wasn’t overly preoccupied with the Nazis’ exaction against civilians, Jews, Communists and other people who kept disappearing overnight. No, the purpose of this Bureau was to address military indiscipline within the army and trying to show that the Soviet army did commit even worse crimes than the German.

Enter the Katyn massacre, where thousands of Polish officers have been slain in a wood near Smolensk (midway between Moscow and Minsk) and left in shallow graves. Nobody local is speaking, but the Germans are glad to finally hold the proof that the Soviets are worse than themselves. They’re also aware that they need to publicize this crime very soon, because when the Soviet troops will recover this territory (people on the front line at that time don’t delude themselves about Nazi victory), they’ll likely accuse the Germans of having committed the execution themselves. Proving that the Soviets committed it, on the other hand, is likely to break the alliance between Western countries and the USSR. I guess this war crime is the height of surreal cynicism between two totalitarian regimes, and the worst part of the novel is to know that Philip Kerr is inspired by real facts and a lot of research.

As if there wasn’t enough darkness in the novel, there’s also a few other murders and a proper investigation and mystery that is solved swiftly with a bow at the end. This part is not as interesting as the historical backdrop and the struggle for Bernie to keep his integrity in a rapidly decadent landscape. But I’ll still read anything in this series, provided I’m in the right mood.

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