As a Berlin police detective, Gunther has dealings with Heydrich, Goebbels, and other Reich leaders who are often the objects of his most caustic wit. By 1943, however, even that wit is subdued. There are fewer wisecracks in "A Man Without Breath," a novel that from the outset exudes an air of exhaustion and defeat. "[W]e're pretending that there's law and order and something worth fighting for," Gunther shouts at a Wehrmacht officer. "But there isn't. Not now. There's just insanity and chaos and slaughter and maybe something worse that's yet to come."
Following the defeat at Stalingrad in February 1943 and the Russian advance westward, the likelihood of an Allied victory seems inevitable to a tight circle of German officers and field commanders. In an atmosphere of heightened paranoia and dread, wonderfully evoked by Kerr, a report reaches Berlin of a mass grave discovered in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk, Russia. Bernie Gunther, now employed by the War Crimes Bureau (part of the Wehrmacht's legal department), is sent to investigate. "I'm supposed to make sure that this is the correct mass grave we're uncovering," he sarcastically concludes when his boss lists the possibilities: the bones could be those of Russian political prisoners; of German or Russian soldiers killed in action; of missing Polish officers; or, Gunther adds helpfully, "…of Jews murdered by the SS."
Evidence of a Russian massacre of Polish officers is what the Wehrmacht and propaganda master Joseph Goebbels, for different reasons, desire. Such an atrocity could rupture the Alliance, isolate Russia, reinvigorate German troops, and soften the victors' view of Nazi war crimes. No wonder that Gunther, his investigation hardly begun, is summoned to the Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, where his eye, as usual, misses nothing. "As Goebbels limped into the room," he observes, "I stood up and saluted in the customary way and he flapped a delicate little hand back over his shoulder in imitation of the way the Leader did it – as if swatting an irritating mosquito, or dismissing some sycophant..."