Bernie Gunther reckons that his life should be marginally easier now that Czech and Slovak patriots have done him, and humanity, the great favour of assassinating his erstwhile boss, Reinhard Heydrich, a recurrent source of his prior misadventures.
However in the forests of Katyn on the Eastern Front the German Army has stumbled upon a set of mass graves. Remarkably these don’t appear to be the work of the Nazis, but rather might answer the vexing question of what has become of all the Polish officers captured by the Nazi’s former Soviet allies when they dismembered Poland between them in 1939.
So Goebbels, intent on pinning these murders on Stalin and showing the world that it is not just Germany that has the programme of war crimes and genocide, needs a detective to help sort out the evidence and make sure that the bodies they are digging up are indeed the right ones. Hence Bernie is shipped out to the German army halted for winter in Belarus while it awaits an oncoming Soviet offensive in springtime.
Things are complicated further by Bernie stumbling into the machination of some anti-Nazi officers in the German Army trying to put an end to Hitler, and person or persons unknown trying to put an end to Bernie.
Gunther would be a compelling character in any novel but the effect is considerably enhanced in the context of the German State and Army in the midst of the Second World War: much as Bernie would like to be a decent man it becomes increasingly difficult in the bloody lunacy of war and the evil bureaucracy of the state. The series reinforces the point, chillingly detailed by Timothy Synder in his history of the Bloodlands where this story occurs, that atrocities, then as now, are committed by ordinary human beings abandoning their consciences, the constraints of law, and ordinary human decency, to supposed higher ideals. This philosophical seriousness combined with the nightmarish setting, a twisty plot and the wry observations of Bernie make the book a delight from start to finish.