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4.4 out of 5 stars218
4.4 out of 5 stars
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This is the ninth Bernie Gunther novel and, I am pleased to report, it is a fantastic addition to a series which just continues to get better and better. The events in this novel have been mentioned in passing in previous books, in a series which goes backwards and forwards in Gunther's lifetime, from the early 1930's to the years of the Cold War. I was pleased that this was set within WWII - although I have enjoyed all the books, those set before and during the war are, in my opinion, the most enjoyable.

It is 1943 and the Battle of Stalingrad is over, leaving Germany shocked at the defeat. Bernie Gunther has joined the Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau, thanks to his old boss Arther Nebe. Back in Berlin, Gunther is working with Judge Johannes Goldsche, an old type Prussian judge, with one eye on the end of the war and restoring Germany's reputation with an investigation into a possible mass grave of Polish officers, killed by the Soviets in Smolensk. With that in mind, Gunther is sent to investigate that the grave is indeed that of Polish officers and not a mass grave of Jews, killed by the SS. The possibility that Germans killed the officers is disregarded by those in charge - "the German army does not murder prisoners of war" Gunther is told by an outraged aristocrat.

What makes this book interesting is the irony that Bernie Gunther is investigating a possible war crime, alongside a region where crimes are being perpetrated on a daily basis by the SS and where mass murder has become commonplace. Sent to investigate, Gunther finds a German unit responsible for communications, hoping to sit out the war in comfort and not at all amused at his uncovering old wounds. Add to this the fact that German soldiers have been viciously killed in the area, a group of aristocrats who have idealistic plans to kill the Fuhrer, Gunther's own brand of dark humour and the personal interest of Joseph Goebbels in events and you have an exciting, intelligent and realistic mystery. Not many authors can use real life characters with any degree of realism, but Gunther's meeting with Goebbels is extremely creepy. Philip Kerr has created a realistic scenario and well imagined characters and I hope that Gunther has many more adventures to come. A new Bernie Gunther thriller is a real event and I have been reading, and loving, them since the publication of "March Violets". However, I wish that Kerr's stand alone novels, many of which I really loved and are now no longer in print, were also released on kindle for a new audience, as they are also well worth exploring. Although the Gunther books are best read in order, you could read this as a stand alone thriller.
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VINE VOICEon 22 August 2015
This Bernie Gunther novel is set in 1943 and deals with the events that happened in the Katyn Woods, where several thousand army officers were executed and buried in a mass grave. As usual, Kerr skilfully - and almost effortlessly - combines an intelligent use of history and real characters along with his fictional skills in storytelling, and right up until the end this feels like a very high quality addition to the excellent Bernie Gunther series.

As usual, there is a slight tendency by Kerr to over-plot and over-layer the story, so that by the end several plot strands and mysteries need explaning and tidying up. The final couple of chapters feel quite strange - over-descriptive and padded in one respect, and a bit rushed and unresolved in another, so the book overall reaches a not entirely plausible and satisfying conclusion. Perhaps it was the title of the book, but Kerr almost overdoes the use of the word 'breath' in places, almost trying to spell out the link between the book title and the action, which felt forced and unneccessary.

But, these are small gripes. The Gunther series continues to set the standard for drawing on this dark, terrible but compelling period of modern history, and what always impresses is that Kerr never lets hindsight interfere with the flow of his books, so that the motivations of the characters feels genuine for the times. It's probably hard work to keep on producing work at this level, especially as the timeline of the three orignal novels (March Violets, The Pale Criminal and A German Requiem) made it very hard to then return to the series in a truly chronological way. Kerr seems to have abandoned the switchback narrative in the most recent books; they seem to work better as a result.
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on 14 July 2013
The 9th Bernie Gunther tale is one of the better ones. The author again places his roguish Berlin detective in a real historical situation, with real historical characters. This limits the degree of surprise [Gunther can't affect the outcome of the Battle of Kursk etc.] and it does mean that the murders the policeman tackles are but drops in an ocean of trouble. On this occasion he is sent to Katyn, where we know now the Soviet secret police massacred Polish army officers. The bodies have just been discovered [1943]. Goebbels wants to publicise the atrocity and divide the Allies. Bernie is given the task of seeing this goes to plan.
He wonders what the point is anyway given that Nazi atrocities in the same area are much worse. He finds himself caught between the various agencies of the Nazi state each pursuing their own agenda. Plots are being hatched against the Leader. The Red Army begins what will be its long march to Berlin. Meanwhile people are turning up with their throats cut. Needless to say, Gunther gets to the bottom of it as well as having a brief fling with a forensic pathologist, as one does.
Kerr gets a lot of authentic detail of the period in. He also is very informative about the true history, including very recent research by Paul Preston The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain.
His hero does very much read like a US private investigator of the 50s, and at times his humorous asides don't quite fit. There remains, too, the problem of Bernie himself - while working for the Third Reich he has to disavow everything it stood for, and this stretches plausibility. But he's still a good read.
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on 3 February 2014
Kerr again takes us back in superbly realised detail to Germany and areas of wartime activity to frame another fabulous Bernie Gunther thriller. I am continually amazed by his ability to conjure up the atmosphere of the times and the way he weaves real life characters into the story. Even after eight previous tales with the intrepid detective the story is fresh and thought provoking. Again Bernie is endeared to us through his sheer humanity.One wonders, however, which famous character he can get involved with next as he trawls back and forth thru wartime europe and further on his adventures. I just hope Kerr has plenty of ideas left-the loss of Bernie Gunther would be too much to bear.
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on 9 March 2014
Bernie Gunther, the wise cracking Berlin detective is back again investigating a series of murders on the eastern front in Russia with the backdrop of the Katyn Forrest genocide of thousands of Polish Officers and men. Bernie is sent to the area to assist in quite possibly the biggest propaganda coup for
the Germans in World War 2 on the instigation of the higher Germans command. The story includes several gruesome murders, an overheard conversation between Hitler and a German aristocrat being offered a bribe and the hunt for a serial killer. Bernie also manages to fall in love, be shot at twice and arrested and almost summarily hanged. Excellent read ****
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on 9 June 2014
I have read all the Bernie Gunther novels & this one while being worth a read is not one of Kerrs best, it is a little too formulaic & predictable although the subject matter & location (Katyn wood) do not lend themselves to the same level of excitement as perhaps Berlin, Paris & Havanna do.

Basically, if you have read all the other Gunther novels, you will read this too because you will not be able to resist it, such is the draw of Gunther, however if you have not read any of them before this would not be the one to start with, try them in order or "If the Dead Rise not."
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on 29 May 2016
Really like these Bernie Gunther books, well written, believable even when the relationships are, in reality, improbable.
My only problem with them stems from not reading them in chronological sequence, I feel I need to gather them all together and make timeline notes - I suspect Gunther would end up being about 106 years old.
But if you like the spy story / police story genre, well written, with a lead character to engage with, I'd recommend these Gunther books
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Kerr's Bernie Gunther series is becoming increasingly hit and miss, and I'm afraid that this book, though quite enjoyable, was overlong and had some incredibly creaky sections. As others have suggested, the romantic interest is little short of risible, there purely to add a little colour and variety to the story: in terms of plot, it has no relevance whatsoever, and is utterly mechanical. One minute Bernie lusts, then is in love, then isn't, then feels bereft ...... I just don't care!

The other really weak section is the solution, which is driven only by the need to keep Bernie alive rather than any function of the plot or character - one minute all is lost then suddenly all is OK. Ta daaaaaa!

I thought 'Prague Fatale' something of a return to form, but I think Kerr's increasing reliance on big stories and big figures from Nazi Germany and WW2, as here with the Katyn Massacre, is a mistake as it weighs down the plot with historical apparatus at the expense of a really interesting thriller. Here, there's enough to keep the flagging fan of the series turning the pages, but another couple like this would turn an interesting and innovative series into pot boiling airport fodder. That would be a real pity: better to kill Bernie off than become so formulaic.
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on 4 May 2016
I love Philip Kerr. He is a superb novelist and his familiarity with the horrors and the movers and shakers during the period during and after the second world war is staggering. I have now finished the series and in spite of my loathing of football and everyone involved in it (except Gary Linneker who is lovely) I am going to have to dip into the Scott Manson Novels, such is my admiration of Kerr. Watch this space
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on 3 April 2013
I'm a great fan of the Bernie Gunther series. I've read all nine books, buying the last few in the first weeks of release. A Man Without Breath is a solid enough addition to Bernie's story, though it is by no means Kerr's best work. Kerr writes with a very strong and engaging hardboiled voice. His characters are vivid, the historical and social contextualisation and sense of place are excellent. And so it is with A Man Without Breath. There are three issues with the story, however, that undermine its telling somewhat. The first is Kerr has tried to cram in too many plotlines and incidents - the Katyn woods massacre and subsequent German propaganda, the plot to kill Hitler by Wehrmacht officers, the Rosenstrasse demonstration by German wives at the arrest of their Jewish husbands, the Gleiwitz incident that started the Second World War, Spanish Fascist experiments on Republican prisoners, several murders that occur whilst Gunther investigates the Katyn massacre, and a love affair. Any two of these would have been sufficient hooks for a strong, tight plot, but the combination of all of them leads to a bit of a muddle. Second, the book is overly long (over 500 pages in hardback) and not just because of the plotlines -- several passages could have been tightened up or deleted as they were largely redundant to the plot. Third, Kerr has Gunther murder a relatively innocent character in cold blood when there were other solutions. Bernie is no saint, but his appeal is that he has a strong moral compass in a corrupt regime and the people he tangles with are mostly monsters; he witnesses, investigates and avenges war crimes, but he doesn't commit them. The action bumped me firmly out of the story and changed my whole view of the character. The effect of these three issues were to deaden the read, which was a shame, as given the place, time and themes of the book this had the potential to be excellent. Regardless, it's an interesting and mostly enjoyable read and I look forward to the next instalment in Bernie's adventures.
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