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Literature / A Man Without Breath

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A Man Without Breath is a 2013 novel by Philip Kerr. It is the ninth novel in the Bernie Gunther detective series.

February, 1943. The war has turned bad for Nazi Germany after the surrender of the Sixth Army at Stalingrad. Bernie Gunther, meanwhile, has found work in the Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau, which has becomes sort of a refuge for anti-Nazi establishment types. Bernie for his part takes ironic black humor in the fact that he might find himself prosecuting a single German soldier for the rape and murder of a peasant woman while the SS might be massacring tens of thousands of Jews in the next village over.

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It's his job for the War Crimes Bureau that gets him sent to Smolensk. The army has heard of the murder of Polish officers in the Katyn Forest outside of Smolensk, and a German officer has discovered what looks like a mass grave, complete with a human bone unearthed by a wolf. Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels is eager to use the rumored massacres as propaganda against the Soviet Union, but Bernie must first determine if there really is a mass grave, and whether it is really Polish officers murdered by the Soviets, as opposed to, say, thousands of Jews murdered by the Nazis.

So Bernie finds himself, much to his displeasure, in Smolensk. While he plunges into the mystery of the bodies in the forest, other matters begin to claim his attention. Two German signalmen (radio operators) are found dead, murdered as they left a whorehouse. And as Bernie discovers, there is a clique of high-ranking officers in the headquarters of Army Group Center who are plotting to assassinate Adolf Hitler.

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Tropes:

  • Artistic License – History: Bernie makes passing reference to Joseph Stalin's son being killed by Polish partisans in 1939. Stalin's oldest son Yakov was captured by the Germans during the early days of Operation Barbarossa, and died in a German POW camp in 1943.
  • Ask a Stupid Question...: Fabian von Schlabrendorff's attempt to kill Hitler via suicide bomb doesn't come off because Hitler left before von Schlabrendorff could set off the bombs. Bernie, who knows what is happening, hustles von Schlabrendorff into a restroom to disarm the bombs. Von Schlabrendorff asks "Are you nervous?", and Bernie snarks back "Whatever gave you that idea? I always get a kick out of being near explosives that are about to go off."
  • Black Comedy: Of the blackest sort. Bernie takes dark amusement in working for the German War Crimes Bureau, and prosecuting individual Wehrmacht soldiers, when the Nazis are committing murder on an industrial scale.
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  • Buxom Is Better: A Running Gag throughout the series is the otherwise darkly cynical Bernie's obsession with breasts. He says of Marian that "her chest was no less full", and that her rack reminds him of the domes of two neighboring churches back in Berlin.
  • Call-Forward:
    • Multiple references to a pending German offensive at a place called Kursk. This offensive would end in defeat and would mark the last time the Germans tried to take the offensive in the East.
    • Bernie describes Ferdinand de Brinon's visit to the Katyn site and mentions offhandedly that he will be shot by the French for collaboration in 1947.
  • Cheese-Eating Surrender Monkeys: "After we'd disposed of the French—something that never takes very long for Germans...."
  • Chekhov's Gun: Is it important that Bernie is asked to return Dyakov's personal effects after Dyakov is released from the hospital? Of course it is! The vital clue that unravels the mystery falls out of the envelope.
  • Continuity Nod:
    • Bernie reminisces about how he got out of the police force when the Nazis came to power, only to rejoin them "five years later, when Heydrich obliged me to return." That's novel The Pale Criminal.
    • Admiral Canaris says a man on his staff was exposed as a mole for the Czechs. That's Prague Fatale.
  • Creepy Crows: "Crows growled their contempt" as Bernie is led out to what is suspected to be a mass grave of Polish officers.
  • The Dead Have Names: Bernie is interrogating Cpl. Hermischen, who is facing a death sentence for raping and murdering two Russian women. When Bernie mentions their names and Hermischen doesn't recognize them, an appalled Bernie says "Don't tell me you don't know their names?"
  • Dead Person Impersonation: It turns out that von Kluge's valet, Dyakov, is actually an NKVD officer, Krivyenko. When Krivyenko realized that he was about to be captured by the Germans, he killed his prisoner, the real Dyakov, and assumed his identity to avoid execution under the Commissar Order.
  • Dies Wide Open: Bernie comes to in the street, after a German bomb landed on the apartment building where he was visiting friends. He sees Klara, the woman he admired, lying next to him looking up at the stars. He calls to her several times before he realizes she is dead.
  • Ear Trumpet: A random gag has the old landlady at Dr. Batov's apartment building using an ear trumpet, which doesn't matter anyway because Bernie doesn't speak Russian.
  • Hired to Hunt Yourself: Bernie feels compelled to murder Cpl. Quidde, because Quidde is about to recklessly reveal the recording of von Kluge, which will almost certainly expose the entire conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. Naturally, he is tabbed to investigate Quidde's death. He passes it off as a suicide but that's foiled when Dr. Buhtz determines that it's murder.
  • Historical Domain Character: As usual in the Bernie Gunther series. Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels sends Bernie to Smolensk. Field Marshal von Kluge takes a strong dislike to Bernie. Bernie meets several members of the anti-Hitler conspiracy, such as Fabian von Schlabrendorff, Hans von Dohanyi, and Henning von Tresckow.
  • Perfumigation: Bernie snarks that the reason Hitler left the exhibition so quickly, and escaped being assassinated by von Schlabrendorff's bomb, is that he caught a whiff of von Schlabrendorff's cologne.
  • Pocket Protector: Bernie's life is saved when a rifle bullet meant for him hits the hard wooden stock of the rifle Bernie is carrying.
  • Samus Is a Girl: As Bernie explains, in German "Marian" is usually a man's name, so he's pleasantly surprised when Dr. Marion Kramsta turns out to be a gorgeous woman.
  • Series Continuity Error: The first Bernie Gunther novel, March Violets, specifies that Bernie fought in World War I on the Turkish front. In this story he remembers trench warfare in Flanders.
  • Shout-Out:
    • The officers' mess in Smolensk screens notorious anti-Semitic propaganda film Jew Suss.
    • Bernie goes inside the local whorehouse and thinks that "inside, the place was decorated like The Blue Angel".
  • Tokyo Rose: Bernie makes a passing reference to listening to Midge Gillars on the radio. That's Mildred Gillars aka "Axis Sally", an American citizen and German propagandist who was convicted of treason after the war.
  • Verbal Irony: Captain Wetzel of the Gestapo has cornered Bernie and von Schlabrendorff in a restroom, while von Schlabrendorff is frantically trying to disarm and dispose of the two bombs he had in the pockets of his coat. Bernie tells Wetzel that von Schlabrendorff is puking, then sarcastically says to von Schlabrendorff, "make sure you flush...those two bombs in your pockets."
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