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Catching one's Breath in Phillip Kerr's latest 

Dark humor informs WWII detective novel

When it comes to dark humor, Bernie Gunther wants to see it painted black.

Consider this snippet of reflection, self-loathing and summary from the erstwhile German detective who, in his latest grim assignment, works for the Wehrmacht's War Crimes Bureau and on behalf of propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. Gunther, a former Berlin policeman, hates Hitler and the Nazis, but retains a preservation streak that leaves him forever compromised and anguished.

Thus recollections like this one: "By the winter of 1943, you found your laughs where you could, and I don't know how else to describe a situation in which you can have an army corporal hanged for the rape and murder of a Russian peasant girl in one village that's only a few miles from another village where an SS special action group has just murdered twenty-five thousand men, women and children."

Despite the horror and bleakness, or perhaps because of it, Gunther retains an air of fascination. His creator, Philip Kerr, has recently published A Man without Breath, his ninth installment in the Gunther novels, and, once again, the dread and moral ambiguity of trying to do something — anything — right amid the Holocaust and other World War II atrocities leave the reader anguished but intrigued.

The Wehrmacht and Goebbels enlist Gunther for an investigation near Smolensk in Russia in the winter and spring of 1943. They want Gunther to follow up on rumors of a massacre by the Russian Red Army, believed to have killed thousands of Polish soldiers at point-blank range before dumping them into mass graves. If he can lead an impartial investigation, the German propagandists believe, then it might lessen the perception of Nazi killings while prompting Britain and the U.S. to end their alliance with the Soviet Union.

But, as anyone familiar with Bernie Gunther knows, the political and war landscapes are only part of his horror. He inevitably encounters murder and, coupled with his penchant for bluntness and insubordination, often becomes a target.

Need it be mentioned that this anti-hero drinks and smokes to excess and remains plagued by femmes fatales?

A Man Without Breath (the title comes from a passage in Goebbels' one and only pre-war novel) once again brings all of these elements together, along with Kerr's prodigious historical research. The author, speaking in Gunther's voice, also drops Dennis Miller-worthy allusions throughout the first-person narrative. Etruscan soothsayers, the 19th century writer E.T.A. Hoffmann and the 1937 French film Pépé le Moko also find their way into Gunther's recollections.

During his Smolensk labors, Gunther befriends a Russian doctor who has evidence that could help Goebbels and the Germans. Gunther and the Russian doctor, quaffing copious quantities of vodka one afternoon, compare dictators. The doctor tells Gunther, "Hitler is just a minor demon in hell, but Stalin is the devil himself."

Kerr works in infinite shades of gray (and darker). Doing so allows him to avoid the cartoonish Nazis of, say, Raiders of the Lost Ark. Instead, the petty and astounding crimes, feints, disagreements, hypocrisies and maneuvers of soldiers, doctors, politicians, government workers and others all play out amid the urgency of war.

No one, least of all Gunther, emerges intact. But even when everyone seems to be losing their heads, Bernie proves irresistible. Or, as he puts it after another long day mining for corpses and killers: "It makes for a hell of a weekend when you're obliged to attend a hanging."

A Man Without Breath

by Philip Kerr

(A Marian Wood Book/Putnam, 480 pages, $26.95)

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