Bernie Gunther is a changed man in this, Philip Kerr’s 11th novel to feature him. A Berlin cop and later private eye who hated the Nazis, subverted their policies when possible but compromised enough to survive, Bernie is pushing 60, living under an assumed name and working as a hotel concierge.
Even more altered are his surroundings. More than a decade has gone by since Bernie’s last adventure in bleak Central Europe: It’s 1956, and he is doing whatever it is that a concierge does (that is, pretty much anything the guests ask him to do) on the French Riviera.
If you have trouble picturing cold-eyed, world-weary Bernie frolicking on a sun-soaked beach, not to worry. “Yesterday I tried to kill myself,” he confesses in the book’s opening line. Nor do surf and sand figure much in this fine thriller. Most of the action in “The Other Side of Silence” takes place in hotels or private apartments, in wartime Germany (during a long flashback), or in the Villa Mauresque, the extravagant, art-filled Riviera residence of novelist W. Somerset Maugham.
As students of spy fiction know, Maugham not only managed British spies early in the 20th century; he also wrote “Ashenden,” one of the best collections of spy stories. In his 80s when he and Bernie get to know each other, Maugham continues to dabble in espionage; in fact, he might not be free to quit even if he wanted to. As a not-very-discreet gay man, he is susceptible to blackmail in a world where homosexual acts are widely outlawed. “I’m a rich old queer,” Maugham says. “I have more skeletons in my closets than the Roman catacombs.”
Blackmail is what brings Maugham and Bernie together. A figure from Bernie’s past has ended up on the Riviera under a new name: Harold Heinz Hebel. Bernie knew him as Harold Hennig, a loathsome Gestapo officer for whom blackmail is a way of life. During the war, he forced Bernie to go along with a scheme that culminated in the sinking of the military transport ship Wilhelm Gustloff — “the greatest maritime disaster in history,” we learn from an author’s note. The 9,400 victims included the woman who was the love of Bernie’s life.
Hebel has obtained a compromising photo of Maugham and wants a tidy sum for relinquishing the print and its negative. Having sniffed out Bernie’s law-enforcement past, Maugham offers him $5,000 to make sure the transaction comes off as promised: i.e., that the blackmail money is safely delivered and the quid pro quo is surrendered. For Bernie the combination of that hefty fee and a chance to avenge his lover’s death proves irresistible: He takes the job.
Other real people flit through the novel, including Maugham’s nephew Robin, also a novelist, and the traitors Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt and Kim Philby. (There is a suspenseful moment when the German Bernie has to guess whether the English surname “Philby” starts with “F” or “Ph.”) But it’s “Willy” Maugham who fascinates Bernie the most: “an elderly man . . . with a face like a Komodo dragon lizard.” Although off-putting at first, the renowned writer ingratiates himself with his bawdy candor and sharp wit. Bernie himself is capable of sardonic witticisms, as when he gives his opinion of the English: “I’d never cared much for [them]. In two wars against Germany I’d seen how they were capable of fighting to the last American.”
The cast includes the obligatory femme fatale, and the plot is intricate enough to satisfy puzzle-minded readers. Occasionally, Kerr takes the easy way out. Bernie is directed to a spot on the roof of Villa Mauresque where an eavesdropper can overhear every word in the room below. And the unraveling of the central mystery in a room containing most of the principals is right out of the Agatha Christie playbook.
But the novel’s pivotal conceit — that in the absurdist world of espionage, the best way to accomplish something might be to purposely botch an attempt to do the opposite — is so well handled that Kerr’s shortcuts hardly matter.
Whether Kerr will go back to chronicling Bernie’s World War II career is unclear, although the title of the next novel in the series, “Prussian Blue,” suggests that he might. Regardless, “The Other Side of Silence” makes for a welcome break from the relentlessly grim atmosphere in which Bernie is accustomed to working.
Dennis Drabelle is a former mysteries editor of Book World.
On Saturday, April 9 at 3:30 p.m. Philip Kerr will be at Politics and Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW.
By Philip Kerr
Marion Wood/Putnam. 400 pp. $27