A Man Without Breath, by Philip Kerr (Marian Wood/Putnam):
Back at the beginning of February, I lost a fine friend, 79-year-old Seattle neurologist Robert H. Colfelt. I hadn’t known Bob for long, only six or seven years, but he and I shared an interest in politics and American history, and most of all a passion for crime fiction. Bob was a voracious reader of Ian Rankin’s John Rebus novels, Martin Walker’s Bruno Courrèges mysteries, and Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander thrillers, and was so taken with Dan Fesperman, that he accidentally bought three copies of Fesperman’s The Double Game before he finally got around to reading one.
What brings my friend Bob strongly to my mind this week is the U.S. release of Philip Kerr’s ninth Bernie Gunther story, A Man Without Breath. Despite his fairly omnivorous interest in historical non-fiction, Bob had only limited curiosity about historical crime fiction. However, he did appreciate stories set in and around World War II, which meant he liked the works of J. Robert Janes, Alan Furst, Jonathan Rabb, Rennie Airth ... and of course Kerr, whose books about gritty, randy former Berlin cop Gunther do such a fine job of exploring the social and psychological hardships of the mid-20th century.
In A Man Without Breath, the year is 1943. Gunther has been assigned to the Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau and dispatched to Smolensk, an ancient walled city southwest of Moscow, where it’s said deceased Polish officers are interred in a mass grave site. Not so much time has passed since Germany’s defeat at Stalingrad, and the Nazi propaganda machine is hungry for good news to share, as well as ways to turn worldwide opinion against Josef Stalin’s USSR. Gunther’s job is to make sure that any atrocities committed in Smolensk are firmly pinned on the Soviets. However, this experience-hardened sleuth finds something more worrisome there than a field of frozen corpses: a killer who’s infiltrated the ranks of the German military, and is prepared to sacrifice Adolf Hitler’s soldiers one by one.
Over the two decades now that he’s been penning this series, Kerr has become a master at portraying the intricacies of the Second World War, both martial and moral. His characters are invariably nuanced, and his story pacing gripping. I was looking forward to putting a copy of A Man Without Breath in Bob Colfelt’s hands and watching his smile stretch to its extremes as he contemplated the hours of joy this new yarn offered. Unfortunately, I cannot do that now. But if my friend’s spirit lurks anywhere nearby, I’m sure it will be looking over my shoulder as I enjoy Kerr’s story myself.
* * *Also for the historical-fiction enthusiast is One for Our Baby (Mysterious Press/Open Road Media), John Sandrolini’s debut novel. The first-person narrator in these pages is Joe Buonomo, a World War II flying ace who landed uncomfortably in California after the shooting ended. There he fell in love with a starlet-wannabe named Helen, but eventually lost her. Now it’s six years later, 1960, and Buonomo is working an air-freight enterprise. He also does the occasional duty for singer Frank Sinatra, including drop-offs and pick-ups of women who’ve caught the crooner’s roving eye. Taking on one such assignment, though, Buonomo discovers that his passenger is none other than the lovely Helen. Within a short period, the two realize that their mutual affections haven’t died. But the next day, Helen disappears. Not surprisingly, the besotted Buonomo wants to find what has happened--even if getting her back means butting heads with mobsters and presidential candidate John F. Kennedy’s backers, and maybe saving her only to lose her again to Sinatra.