In the ninth Bernie Gunther novel, A Man Without Breath: A Bernie Gunther Novel, the Berlin cop, now attached to the Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau, investigates the Katyn Forest massacre—the 1940 slaughter of thousands of Polish officers by the Soviets, discovered by the Nazis near Smolensk in 1943.
What led to the plot for A Man Without Breath?
I’d always wanted to use the Katyn Forest massacre as the background for a Bernie Gunther story. I was fascinated with the way the Nazis went about using this event for propaganda purposes—the way they put on a horrified face as they uncovered the graves, and pretended that they weren’t doing the same thing to hundreds of thousands of Jews. The hypocrisy of it still staggers me.
Was there an advantage in taking a decade-long break between the first three Gunther novels, the so-called Berlin Noir trilogy, and the next in the series?
I think I’m a much better writer now. I can’t think of anyone else who has been afforded the luxury of returning to a character after such a long gap. Usually, writers kill off a character or do it to death. I think it was very lucky that I left Bernie alone for so long. It enabled the first three to achieve a sort of critical mass. I knew about the Germans’ WWII War Crimes Bureau for a long time, and in this book finally found a good opportunity to use it as Bernie’s new assignment.
How has Bernie changed?
The series is about one man’s efforts to understand himself in relation to the Nazis and to come to terms with his own part in a crime. He’s a conflicted patriot, a social democrat, and he’s also a cop. I think he gets more and more cynical the longer the Nazis stay in power. By the time the war comes he’s just out to survive and not much else. He hates himself almost as much as he hates the Nazis. I guess that’s the main change; his own guilt.
Do you consider yourself more a political writer than a crime writer?
The solving of a crime and being a detective is incidental to the unfolding story. Bernie is more the kind of detective to whom things happen, and I’m more interested in the politics of Germany in the 1930s than I am in the police procedural. I think of these books as an exploration of shifting power structures before and after the war. I’m also as interested in America’s part in Cold War German politics as in the Nazis.
How have the books been received in Germany?
Okay in Germany as a whole, but better in Berlin. Berliners were always more comfortable with fessing up to this period and to what happened than other Germans.