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Tuesday, April 30, 2013


A Review of A MAN WITHOUT BREATH by Philip Kerr

A new Bernie Gunther novel is always a noteworthy event for Berlin Noir fans and A MAN WITHOUT BREATH marks the first new release in the short lifespan of this blog. So without further ado, let's see how the ninth Gunther novel measures up.

The year is 1943 and the Nazis are trying to pick up the pieces after the surrender at Stalingrad. This devastating event sets the tone for the novel. Gunther novels have been cynical in the past, but A MAN WITHOUT BREATH takes it to new levels. And rightly so as, at the point the tale kicks off, only the most fanatical Nazi still believes Germany will somehow prevail and win the war. Fatalism has replaced optimism and Gunther has some company in his misery.

The novel opens with Gunther in Berlin, working for the Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau and the irony of this entity should not be lost on the reader. Gunther has been working with a witness to a war crime involving the British Navy's sinking of a German hospital ship. The witness is a Jew but the Nazis are prepared to overlook that for the moment so long as good propaganda against their enemies will result from the investigation. It is while in this capacity that Gunther has his world yanked out from under him, literally. An RAF bomb strike on the building he's in collapses the structure around him and this is the metaphor for the entire novel. Germany has had the rug of Hitler's invincibility yanked out from under it with the recent defeat and Gunther's near-death in the rubble echoes this while foreshadowing what is coming for the country in the next couple of years.

Still reeling, Gunther is given the task of investigating a massacre of Polish officers by the Soviets in the Katyn forest near Smolensk. If true, the Nazis hope to have a strong propaganda tool to combat the Allies' claims of such atrocities being committed in the name of the German people. Given the task of handling the matter by Goebbels himself, Gunther reluctantly heads to Smolensk to continue the investigation.

That is the basic set up of the novel and the rest of the action plays out in and around the forest for the most part. As always, Kerr provides encyclopedic local details and the cast of characters he surrounds Gunther with are well-rounded characters. Even the monsters have shades to them. The plot twists and turns nicely as the investigation is soon complicated by multiple murders and as many suspects all while Gunther stumbles into the budding assassination attempts being plotted to remove Hitler. The suspects are many, the answer few as Gunther balances getting Goebbels want he wants while wrestling with the hopelessness and insanity of the situation where the mass grave the Soviets created through wholesale slaughter is probed while the nearby ones the SS themselves filled with murdered civilians are ignored - all while it's only a matter of time before the Russian counter-offensive drives the Germans out of the area for good and all. It's a rich tapestry Kerr gives us and combined with the engaging mysteries makes for riveting reading.

Threatened at every turn, Gunther must walk a razor's edge as he has done in his past work for the Nazis but this time he goes over that edge in a defining moment for the character that will forever change your perception of the man. His motivations for doing so should be a matter of great debate amongst Berlin Noir fans.

The novel is quick paced, interesting at every turn of the plot and steeped in period details. The result is one of the best entries into the series.

The sole misstep that slightly soured the reading experience is the romantic plot shoe-horned into the narrative. As a long-time hardboiled mystery fan/writer myself, I'm well aware that a romantic interest is one of the tropes of the genre. Gunther has had many in the past, usually with disastrous results, but they have fit the tales and their pre-war, war and post-war settings. But the romantic entanglement in BREATH comes across as too forced, present as a 'necessary' aspect of the genre rather than an integral part of the story. When the beautiful scientist showed up to exchange quips with Gunther before hopping into bed, I rolled my eyes and groaned. The rich plotlines of the novel were hampered by the prerequisite love interest this time out and I breathed a sigh of relief when this subplot was dispensed with.

This one aspect of A MAN WITHOUT BREATH should not deter Gunther or Berlin Noir fans from reading the novel. There is enough intrigue and moral complexity tinged with impending doom to satisfy any discerning reader of historical mystery. Kerr still leads the Berlin Noir field by a long margin and his strengths as a novelist and storyteller are showcased here. Sure to spur some debate amongst readers, A MAN WITHOUT BREATH will leave you breathless. Don't miss it.

Monday, April 22, 2013


A Review of Philip Kerr's THE ONE FROM THE OTHER

After finishing A GERMAN REQUIEM, author Philip Kerr took a break from Bernie Gunther to plough other literary pastures. That break lasted 15 years. Sure, the break today means nothing as all of the books are readily available, but, at the time, fans spent years wondering if we'd ever stalk through the filthy streets of Berlin with Gunther again. So when Gunther returned in THE ONE FROM THE OTHER, fans had high hopes and, more importantly, high expectations. I'm pleased to say that Bernie returned in style.

After a Prologue featuring Bernie Gunther's eventful trip to from Berlin to Palestine in 1937 where Gunther is embroiled in the wheeling and double-dealing around the exodus of Jews fleeing the Nazis, the novel jumps ahead to 1949 where we find Gunther in Munich. His wife has suffered a mental following the death of her father and Gunther finds himself trying to run a vacant hotel near the Dachau concentration camp. Needless to say, business is not good.

From here, a series of events begin that had me thinking, I will admit, that Gunther's fourth outing would be the first misstep in what had been, up until then, a stellar series. Following on the heels of the Palestine flashback, an American comes to the hotel with a hostage and forces him to unearth gold stolen from Jewish inmates of the camp. Then the situation with Bernie's wife comes to a head while he gets a case from a German woman hoping she has been widowed by the war so that she can re-marry and forget about the Nazi monster that was her first husband. From here, Bernie becomes embroiled in the Nazi underground railroad funneling wanted war criminals out of Germany to Argentina. Kerr hits us with so many plot threads that I found myself thinking that he'd made a few false starts over the 15 years between books 3 and 4 that he decided to just use all of the plots he'd come up with in a throw-everything-at-the-reader ploy to get Bernie back into action.

Man, was I wrong! THE ONE FROM THE OTHER hits its stride after Gunther is subjected to a cringe-inducing 'lesson' at the hands of skulking Nazi butchers though this is not evident at first. Recovering from his assault, Kerr gives Gunther yet another situation for the reader to absorb. This time, he is in a remote chalet where he is enlisted to secure the owner's inheritance. I should point out here that Kerr stoops to a creaking plot device to make this part of the story work. It is the novel's only misstep, but it is a doozy that could turn some readers off. This is fiction after all and one's suspension of disbelief should be operating at full power. That said, the twist does strain credibility.

However, once over that hump, Gunther is pummeled from all sides. The noose is tightening and it truly seems like there will be no way out for our hero. Watching Gunther squirm like a fish on a hook makes for some great reading as the bodies pile up as fast as the double crosses. He is a survivor and nowhere is that better displayed than in the ironic twist that characterizes the final pages of THE ONE FROM THE OTHER.

The novel, of course, features Kerr's unmatched eye for period detail and his ability to set each scene so vividly. The details are rich, precise, specific and prolific and yet, at no time, do they read like a Wikipedia entry. Kerr also demonstrates a singular knack for creating monsters that terrify us with their humanity. He gives us a glimpse into the Nazi mentality that few have managed over the years. Kerr has done his homework and it shows.

THE ONE FROM THE OTHER is one of the strongest entries in the series. However, it's not a good starting point for those new to Berlin Noir or the Gunther books. For the initiated though, it will get the job done. Do not miss it.

Next week we'll be breaking with tradition here at Berlin Noir. In the past, we've alternated between Gunther novel reviews and the books that have followed since the original trilogy. That format will return. However next week, I'll be reviewing A MAN WITHOUT BREATH since it has just been released and has Berlin Noir fans everywhere talking. See you next week.

Monday, April 8, 2013


A Review of Jeffery Deaver's GARDEN OF BEASTS

Jeffery Deaver had a long string of bestsellers under his belt before writing GARDEN OF BEASTS and snagged a Ian Felming Steel Dagger Award for his efforts. In the novel, Deaver utilizes what is rapidly becoming a Berlin Noir cliché, namely, the 1936 Olympics in Berlin as a backdrop.

Into this overused setting, mob hitman Paul Schumann is thrust. After being busted by the Feds, he's got a simple choice to make: go to jail or go to Berlin and assassinate Reinhard Ernst, the man spear-heading the re-armament of Germany. The US do not want to get caught up in another world war and figure that killing Ernst will prevent Germany from re-arming. I guess, sometimes, there really is only one man for the job. In exchange, Schumann will receive $10,000 and a clean record so that he can start again. Yes, the plot doesn't make a lot of sense but this is a thriller and, personally, I can overlook a paper-thin premise in favor of well-crafted action.

GARDEN OF BEASTS features a bit of both. Schumann is a schizophrenic character. Deaver describes him as a machine when it comes to planning his kills. He leaves no stone unturned and is meticulous to a fault. Once in Berlin, however, Schumann soon seems to be going out of his way to draw attention to himself by beating up Brownshirts in the street, falling in love, meeting famous historical figures, involving himself with the local criminal element and barely devoting any attention at all to Ernst until halfway through the book. He is an assassin who seems to love the spotlight. It isn't long before the Berlin police are on his tail while the Nazis have gotten wind that an operation is in the works involving a Russian (Schumann's cover) who is up to no good.

This odd plotting is soon complicated by Deaver's switching back and forth between far too many points of view. Beginning with Schumann's perspective, the narrative switches to Ernst's and we see him dodging the arrows flung at him by Goering as they vie for Hitler's attention. A study Ernst has headed up may or may not involve Jewish elements and Goering is trying to use this as a bludgeon. We also learn about Ernst's background, his family life and just about everything else you can think of. Deaver also introduces us into the life of a Holmes-like police inspektor Willi Kohl, his family life (a son with Hitler Youth problems), his work life and the people he butts heads with. Frankly, Kohl is the most interesting character in the novel as Schumann starts strong but soon becomes a mere device to move the plot forward. We are treated to a few other points of view as well. Göring gets to take center stage for a few sections as do some pacifist Berlin youths who at least pay off at the end of the novel.

A minor aspect of the book I also found off-putting is Deaver's (or his editor's) choice of translating most of the German place names, streets and expressions. Nazis walk around saying "Hail Hitler", all of the streets and locales are given English translations - except the Tiergarten which is odd given the title of the novel. For this reader a lot of mystique is lost when characters meet up on Under the Lindens. Yes, the translations are accurate but I think most readers should be able to follow the narrative without these needless changes. And, for Berlin Noir or history fans, yeah, we know what the German means.

The early meandering of the narrative aside, once the book gets going, Deaver does an admirable job with the action. Famous for his twists, GARDEN OF BEASTS does not disappoint in that regard. The Schumann of the opening section returns with a vengeance in some great action. However at the climax of the novel, he once again reverts back to trying too hard to be a hero for the reader. The ending suggests a sequel and, considering the book's success. it wouldn't surprise me if Deaver gives us another Schumann adventure.

Deaver is a capable writer and his descriptions of Berlin, while accurate, fail to envelope the reader with that all-encompassing sense of place, which is so crucial to historical works. When he wants to, Deaver can really get you turning the pages. I can't help thinking that the novel would have benefitted from the cutting of 100 or so pages. There's enough here for a taut, roller-coaster ride but Deaver's need to flesh his characters out bogs the narrative down.

Given Deaver's experience and ability, GARDEN OF BEASTS is a somewhat satisfying read. It's no Berlin Noir classic but you could do a lot worse. Parts of the novel are absorbing and worth your time and the book does make a stab at providing the reader with some sense of place. If you're a fan of his work, then this book will not disappoint. If not, then GARDEN OF BEASTS is a crapshoot. There's quite a bit to like and about as much to dislike in the novel, which is why I give it a reserved recommendation.