Before Scottish novelist Philip Kerr sits down to compose a new entry in his series about Bernhard “Bernie” Gunther—the onetime Berlin homicide detective, former German POW in Russia, and full-time wisecracking cynic—he must have to spend a long while refreshing his memory on the progression of his protagonist’s life. That’s because his Gunther stories don’t often follow one another in terms of their time frames. Sure, the first book, 1989’s March Violets, was set in 1936, with the action in its 1990 sequel, The Pale Criminal, taking place two years afterward. But a much later work, 2009’s If the Dead Rise Not, leaps back principally to 1934 Berlin, while the adventures in 2011’s Prague Fatale and 2013’s A Man Without Breath take place, respectively, in 1941 and 1943—prior to the 1947 setting of what was actually the third Gunther tale to see print, A German Requiem (1991). So while reading these volumes in their order of publication might provide insight into the author’s evolving familiarity with 20th-century history, it’s not necessary to do so. Even veteran Gunther-watchers benefit from Kerr’s subtle reminders in each book of his Nazi-hating ex-cop’s recent past.
The Other Side of Silence, the new, 11th Gunther outing, finds our “hero” living under an assumed name—Walter Wolf—on the French Riviera in 1956. He’s pushing 60 years old and is employed as the concierge at the tony Grand Hôtel du Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, maintaining the lowest profile possible, in order not to attract notice from the French Sûreté. He’s also depressed, his third wife, Elisabeth Dehler (last seen in 2011’s Field Gray), having recently ditched him in favor of returning to Berlin. “She never managed to learn French, appreciate the food, or even enjoy the sun very much,” Gunther grouses, “and that’s the only thing down here of which there’s a free and plentiful supply.” Finally at the end of his psychological rope, he tries to asphyxiate himself in a garage—only to have his unreliable car run out of gas before the job is done.
Sometimes, it seems, Gunther can’t do anything right—except, as he reaffirms here, crime-solving and deceit, at both of which enterprises he’s distinctly skilled.
Resigned to the tedium of survival, Gunther heads back to the Grand Hôtel and resumes his concierge duties (consisting primarily of “making restaurant reservations, booking taxis and boats, coordinating porter service, shooing away prostitutes—which isn’t as easy as it sounds; these days only American women can afford to look like prostitutes—and giving directions to witless tourists who can’t read a map and don’t speak French”). However, he won’t be able to pick up his life where he left off. That’s due in part to the sudden appearance at Cap Ferrat of a figure from his past: Harold Heinz Hebel, who Gunther once knew better as mass-murdering Gestapo officer Harold Hennig. In addition, one of Gunther’s regular partners for evening games of bridge, a secretive Italian casino manager named Antimo Spinola, has been murdered, and Kerr’s man—sounding like Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon—insists “there’s an unwritten rule in bridge that when your partner gets killed you’re supposed to try and find out who did it.”
As if these challenges weren’t enough to keep Gunther’s mind off suicide, there’s also his search for a blackmailer targeting another local resident, W. Somerset Maugham.
“A sunny place for shady people” is how Englishman Maugham, author of The Moon and Sixpence and The Painted Veil, once characterized the French Riviera. And Kerr goes a long way in this story to prove that true. Not long after being asked by an “extremely attractive” habitué of the Grand Hôtel for help in gaining access to the reclusive, 82-year-old Maugham (about whom she wishes to pen a biography), Gunther meets Maugham’s nephew, Robin, also a writer, and is invited to join them both for dinner and a rubber of bridge at their Villa Mauresque, a sumptuous aerie built in 1906 by Belgian King Leopold II. Gunther and Maugham hit it off quickly, and the latter—privy to his new acquaintance’s police background—solicits his aid in dealing with an extortionist who is demanding $50,000 in exchange for a photograph of the author cavorting, poolside, with a cluster of very nude and priapic fellow males.
Maugham (shown on the right), who had worked for the British Secret Intelligence Service, and from that fodder crafted the espionage stories he collected in 1928’s Ashenden: Or the British Agent, is no stranger to crime and coercion. “I’m a rich old queer,” the wealthy wordsmith confides. “I have more skeletons in my closets than the Roman catacombs. Being blackmailed is not so much an occupational hazard for a man like me as an existential condition.” Yet in that long-ago era when homosexuality was still unlawful in England, he worries that his elder brother, a government functionary, will be embarrassed by any scandal. And Maugham, along with Gunther, bristles at knowing the blackmailer in this case is none other than the aforementioned Harold Hennig.
The Berlin ex-detective’s loathing of Hennig is well-merited. As we learn in a poignant flashback, Gunther—whose manifest disenchantment with the world conceals a romantic streak nearly as broad as the Danube—was trapped at one point toward the end of World War II at Königsberg, as brutal Soviet occupying forces closed in around that historic capital of East Prussia. In mutual despair of their future, he and a much younger signals officer (or “lightning maiden”) with the German Naval Auxiliary, Irmela Louise Schaper, found comfort, love, and desperate hope in each other’s arms, only to be wrenched apart by another blackmail scheme engineered by Hennig and capped off by the real-life torpedo-sinking, in 1945, of a German military transport ship called the Wilhelm Gustloff, on which some 9,400 people died—six times as many as perished in the 1912 Titanic disaster. By helping Maugham overcome his latest shakedown threat, Gunther perceives a chance to also wreak revenge on Hennig.
Hennig’s scheme to sell Maugham that sordid photo, though, is only the opening gambit in a larger, riskier plan. It seems Hennig also possesses a tape recording on which notorious English spy Guy Burgess—who for years fed the Soviet Union secrets from the western powers—reveals information that could not only embarrass British Intelligence, but weaken the “special relationship” between the UK and the United States.
Philip Kerr has long insisted that his Gunther books are “political/historical novels that masquerade as crime novels.” That’s largely true of The Other Side of Silence, which combines the horrors of World War II with the often absurdist intrigues of the Cold War that followed it. However, this writer does have a taste for old-fashioned mystery plotting, as he demonstrates in Gunther’s rather too-easy solution of Spinola’s slaying (and showed still more clearly in his 2012 country-house whodunit, Prague Fatale). Kerr recruits more than a few historical characters into this drama, including Burgess’ traitorous comrades, Anthony Blunt and Kim Philby. But none of them come near to outshining Maugham, who’s described as “an elderly man…with a face like a Komodo dragon lizard,” yet brightens each scene he slithers into with his sardonic wit and disarming self-awareness. Heap atop these appealing elements the puzzle of Prussia’s original Amber Room, personal and political betrayals aplenty, and a femme fatale who Gunther manages to push into a desperate corner, and The Other Side of Silence becomes anything but a quiet addition to Kerr’s award-winning series.
Word is that ever-lonely, peripatetic Bernie will turn up next year in a novel titled Prussian Blue. Wherever and whenever that yarn takes him, you can bet his abundant fans will follow. Among several fine authors currently composing crime thrillers set amid and around World War II, Kerr is unquestionably the best.
J. Kingston Pierce is both the editor of The Rap Sheet and the senior editor of January Magazine.