Philip Kerr, A Man Without Breath. New York: G.P. Putnam Sons, 2013.
Yesterday I pointed out that I might take today off but I started a new Gunther novel today so today I’m doing a half job posting. I have yet to finish this particular novel, but I thought I’d offer a few comments on one of my favorite fictional characters and the nature of ‘series’ writing in general.
Years ago in my first year of teaching, a colleague introduced me to author Patrick O’Brian and his series of Napoleonic era fiction. I became fascinated with naval tactics and terminology from the early nineteenth century, educated on the nature of the complications of being Irish, Catalan, and English, and intrigued by the moral ambiguities of Captain Jack Aubrey, Stephen Maturin, and others. As the years passed and I devoured the Aubrey/Maturin canon, I enjoyed the stories (not all equally, but overall) and looked forward to the next installment. Then O’Brian died. I fussed. I fidgeted. I still have yet to finish the series. I can’t bring myself to do it for some reason because, of course, should I read Blue at the Mizzen, it’s over. I have the same problem with the last bits of season three of Arrested Development.
Anyway, other series have come into my life that I hold in equal esteem, and thankfully, two of the three authors are still alive and producing works, Philip Kerr is one of those writers. I came to Kerr via one of the other two surviving authors, Alan Furst. Furst had been recommended to me by a colleague and I ate up his spy novels that transport the reader to Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. Furst’s works are, not strictly speaking, serial, but there are so many overlapping locales, characters, and more, that one can’t help but be pulled into the idea that it is all interwoven as a single tale.
I forget whether a Kerr book was next to a Furst I picked up or whether the interwebs made the connection for me or what have you, but regardless, once I met Bernie Gunther, the Berlin cop and soldier with a conscience, I was hooked. The narrative tools of any Kerr novel are strong, not the least of which being because of his powers of description. A reader is transported to Weimar Germany, Berlin after the Nazis, the Eastern Front, South America in the years after the war, etc. I won’t go so far as to share the opinion of the Chicago Tribune – “history is wasted on historians. It ought to be the exclusive property of novelists – but only if they are as clever and knowledgeable as Philip Kerr” – but Kerr’s work is first rate history and story telling combined. He clearly has deeply researched life in Germany in the interwar period and under the Nazis, and he is vastly skilled at creating characters in an unpleasant place that you care about.
A Man Without Breath, the latest Gunther novel, takes place between early March and early May 1943 and revolves around Germany’s defeat at the hands of the Soviets at Stalingrad and revelations about the Soviet massacre of Polish officers in the Katyn Forest earlier in the war. Gunther, the Great War veteran, is recovering from the effects of a British bombing and from his having been forced into work for Reinhard Heydrich and other folks whom Gunther finds distasteful. Now, Gunther is employed by the war crimes division, investigating cases of crimes committed by German soldiers. Kerr notes, with great irony, that his protagonist never gets to investigate the work of the einsatzgruppen who are committing actual war crimes.
Janelle is expressing shock that I wrote anything today – I concur, so I’ll wrap it up for now. Oh, and by the way, the other series author who passed away most unfortunately is Jean Claude-Izzo, whose Marseilles Trilogy is tremendous. I wish he were still with us.