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Book review: A Man Without Breath, by Philip Kerr

 

When Scott Fitzgerald said there were no second acts in American lives, he provided a thousand writers with the opportunity to refute that assertion. But had he said it about British lives, it would still be untrue — as the example of Philip Kerr attests.

There was a time when Kerr was riding high with a series of high-concept thrillers, not to mention his more serious Berlin Noir trilogy featuring the German wartime detective Bernie Gunther. Inevitably, Hollywood came calling, and Kerr relocated to sunnier climes, working on a variety of projects that were stillborn (although he was handsomely compensated for this work). But just as disappointed readers were beginning to mutter ‘Whatever happened to Philip Kerr?’ He returned to these shores and began producing new work, once again featuring his dogged German sleuth. Any fears that his creative fires might have been extinguished by his Hollywood sojourn were quickly allayed; not only were the new books as powerfully involving as his earlier work, but more complex moral dilemmas were freighted in for his hero, struggling to retain his soul in a malign society.

In the new book, A Man Without Breath, the year is 1943. Bernie has a new job at the German War Crimes Bureau in Berlin. There are unsettling reports of a mass grave in a forest near Smolensk, rumours which are validated when a wolf unearths human remains. Polish officers killed by the Russians? This would play into the hands of the regime: a propaganda victory over the Russians. And there is one man who will be able to discern the truth: Bernie Gunther. But Bernie is to find – as so often before – that the truth is not always a welcome commodity.

Kerr’s last outing for his compromised hero was Field Gray, in which Bernie's wartime record was put under an unforgiving spotlight (as a member of the SS, he had killed partisans who were killing German soldiers), and that book took on a level of moral queasiness rarely found in the crime genre. If the new book rows back from the darker implications of its predecessor, it still makes life satisfyingly difficult for Bernie. It might be argued that there is now a body of work which could be called a genre in itself: the good detective trying to do his best within a corrupt regime (Martin Cruz Smith's Gorky Park is another cogent example), but it can safely be said that few writers have tackled the theme with the rigour of Philip Kerr. If the new book is not as subtly disturbing as Field Gray, it still firmly enmeshes the reader in its 500-odd pages — and reminds us that Hollywood's loss is Britain's gain.

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