Philip Kerr, ‘A Man Without Breath’

a man without breathI almost fell over with excitement when I saw this in Waterstones yesterday. I wasn’t aware that a new Bernie Gunther novel was coming, but I’m mighty glad to see it’s here.

A Man Without Breath is the ninth in the series featuring German policeman/PI/POW/spy Bernie Gunther. The angle here is that it’s set pre- and post-WW2; the original trilogy skipped out the war altogether, but later books have given more detail on what happened to Bernie during that time.

Gunther is very much the archetypal, Marlowe-esque hero – cynical but compassionate, wise-cracking but intelligent, and never very far from a severe beating. Kerr’s been quoted as saying that with the first novel, March Violets, he tried to imagine what Raymond Chandler might have written if he lived in 30s Berlin rather than Los Angeles. It’s a hell of a vent act, and one that Kerr pulls it off consistently throughout the rest of the series.

My German is non-existent, but one aspect of the books I particularly like is Kerr’s use of slang – sometimes hard to follow on first reading, it feels bang on for the period. Guns are lighters, dead bodies canned meat and bullshit is cold cabbage (as in ‘don’t give us that cold cabbage, sir.’). If you want to know what Kerr means by mouse, or chocolady, or when describing a man as a bit warm, you’ll have to check out the books for yourself.

I’ve read all of them in the series, including the dense, spy thriller-esque A German Requiem – not Kerr’s best, and probably not the best starting point for newcomers. You could do worse than get hold of Berlin Noir, which is an anthology of the first 3 books, and excellent value for money. Otherwise, I’d have two particular favourites. First would be The One from the Other – Kerr’s first Gunther novel after a gap of 15 years, and with a Swiss watch of a plot that deftly walks the tightrope between thrilling and implausible. It made me laugh out loud in surprise more than once, much to the distress of all the other people on their daily commute.

Second, if you’re looking for a twist on the classic, Agatha Christie country-house murder mystery, try Prague Fatale – the twist here being that all the suspects are high-ranking Nazis, brought together for a weekend at the residence of Reinhard Heydrich, ‘Protector’ of Bohemia-Moravia (now the Czech Republic). It’s a great read, and not surprisingly for a novel featuring Heydrich (who Hitler called ‘the man with the iron heart’), not everything is as it seems (for another take on Heydrich, and the plot to assassinate him in 1942, I can recommend Laurent Binet’s HHhH – a story all the more extraordinary for being true).

I’m not sure when I’ll get the funds to buy this latest addition to the series, but it’s definitely muscled its way onto my ‘To Read’ list. Welcome back, Bernie – it’s good to see you.

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