'The Other Side of Silence': Philip Kerr's German detective returns for postwar blackmail and intrigue on the Riviera
March 27, 2016 12:00 AM
Philip Kerr, author of "The Other Side of Silence."
By Robert Croan / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Blackmail, murder, deception, sexual shenanigans of every sort, and an undercurrent of black humor pervade Philip Kerr’s 11th novel featuring the unsinkable German detective Bernie Gunther. Once a Nazi against his will who, in order to survive, worked for German intelligence as high up the ladder as Joseph Goebbels, returns in “The Other Side of Silence.” It’s now 1956, and Gunther has emigrated to Cap Ferrat on the French Riviera, trying to find a peaceful existence. He’s hiding in plain sight as a concierge in the luxurious Grand Hotel, under the false name of Walter Wolf. The work bores him to the extent that he has contemplated suicide, but for the moment — and only for a moment — he seems to be safe and sound in his assumed identity.
"THE OTHER SIDE OF SILENCE"
By Philip Kerr. Putnam ($27).
Blackmail is the main issue this time around: blackmail of a celebrity for his homosexual activities, it would seem, until we learn that the real object of the blackmailer’s scheme may be the entire British intelligence system. As in every Bernie Gunther novel, the hero’s past comes back to haunt him, not only in the person of evil figures who have survived along with Bernie, but also in the form of hideous memories that will remain with him throughout his life.
One such person who appears at the Grand Hotel is Harold Hennig, a former captain in the German Security Service (a branch of the Gestapo), who was responsible for unspeakable acts suffered by Jews and other prisoners. Gunther recognizes his old nemesis, who checks into the hotel, looking like a prosperous banker or film producer, using the name Harold Heinz Hebel.
The other person who disrupts Bernie’s temporarily placid existence is an attractive middle-aged American woman, Anne French, a journalist working on a biography of Somerset Maugham. Maugham is an inveterate bridge player, and so is Bernie. Anne wants Bernie to join Maugham’s bridge group, to get to know him and eventually get her into Maugham’s inner circle.
The complications add up quickly. Maugham is gay, as are his close bridge-playing friends. Bernie is straight (he soon begins an affair with Anne), and feels uncomfortable among Maugham’s companions. The aged Maugham takes a liking (non-sexual) to Bernie, and confides to him that he is being blackmailed over some old photos with a group of naked men at his swimming pool. At this time, homosexuality was illegal in England but not in France, and Maugham has emigrated to avoid criminal prosecution.
Maugham knows that Bernie had once been a homicide detective and hires him to deliver the money. The blackmailer is none other than Hennig aka Hebel, and Bernie soon learns that there are no such things as coincidences. Another pertinent fact that comes up is that Maugham had once been a member of British intelligence. The web of intrigue that develops is the substance of Mr. Kerr’s complex plot. Anything further would be a spoiler, but it’s not unreasonable for a seasoned crime fiction reader to anticipate that things (and people) are seldom what they seem in a story like this.
The essence of all Mr. Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels is the character of the hero himself — curiously self-deprecating and at the same time self-assured — and the effect on his psyche of the hideous events he suffered or witnessed during the Third Reich. All told, Gunther came through pretty well. He is scarred, but he has retained both his innate sense of morality and his dark sense of humor. Nor has he lost his desire for vengeance, which is the irritant that propels the present plot.
Robert Croan is a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette senior editor.
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