Written by Philip Kerr — Ex-cop Bernie Gunther feels life has come full circle. In his younger days, between spells with Berlin’s Kriminalpolizei, he was the house detective for the city’s celebrated Adlon Hotel. Then came World War II and Gunther’s nimble foxtrot around Nazi Germany where he worked for the likes of Josef Goebbels and Reinhard Heidrich, managed to stay alive, and more or less kept his conscience intact. The Other Side of Silence is set in 1956, and Gunther cannot risk his past being ‘misunderstood’ back home so he has taken an assumed identity and is working as concierge at the Grand Hotel, St Jean Cap Ferrat – one of the French Riviera’s best hotels.
The past is never far behind Gunther – or Walter Wolf as he is known these days – and when a suave Savile Row-suited gentleman checks into the hotel as Harold Heinz Hebel, Gunther has to put on his best poker face. The visitor from Bonn is none other than Harold Hennig, one of the more elusive former Nazis. Gunther has good reason to remember Hennig, but his attention is temporarily diverted when he strikes up a relationship with an elegant Englishwoman, Anne French. With a shared interest in literature and the addictive game of bridge, Gunther and French find a third piece of common ground – her bed.
During pillow talk, she reveals that she is contracted to write a biography of the author William Somerset Maugham. The Riviera is almost replete with millionaires, but few are as reclusive as Maugham, and French admits that she is desperate for an interview with him, or at least an invite to the Villa Mauresque. Gunther has already made the acquaintance of Maugham’s dissolute nephew, Robin, and uses his reputation as a bridge player to secure an invite to Maugham’s villa.
After a successful evening with Maugham and his associates, Gunther is taken aside by the old man. Maugham reveals that he is being blackmailed by Hebel/Hennig over a photograph which implicates Maugham and several British establishment figures in a homosexual scandal. Gunther agrees to deal with the situation, but events go downhill rapidly as the blackmail scam widens further.
The most powerfully written section of the book hardly needed writing at all. We learn of a largely forgotten episode from 1945, which is truly tragic in its immensity. The Wilhelm Gustloff was a cruise liner pressed into service as a military transport vessel, and in January 1945 it attempted to sail across the Baltic from Prussia. It was overloaded with some 10,000 personnel, mostly Germans fleeing the advance of the Red Army. The Soviet submarine S-13, captained by a maverick drunk and against orders sent three torpedoes into the side of the Wilhelm Gustloff. The ship sank killing 9,400. That much is fact, but slipping back into fiction we find out that among those who perished was a young woman who was carrying Gunther’s child.
We learn exactly why Hebel/Hennig is held culpable by Gunther for the death of his lover and their baby. Kerr’s skill is not just with the details of history, but with its broad sweep, and is unrivaled among modern writers. Personalities and names often resonate long beyond their lifespan: Guy Burgess, Kim Philby, Donald McLean, Anthony Eden and General Nasser are all small but essential brushstrokes on Philip Kerr’s canvas.
Kerr’s writing is a joy: Gunther says, of the concierge of a rival hotel, “…he’d been in the Resistance, which was an organisation that seemed to be growing all the time. Certainly it was twice the size it had ever been throughout the war.” Describing Erich Koch, a minor Nazi functionary from the days of the Third Reich, he comments “I’d seen smaller Nazis but only in the Hitler Youth. And he looked about as racially valuable as the onanistic contents of a schoolboy’s handkerchief.”
We are promised that 2017 will bring a 12th chapter in the fascinating life of Bernie Gunther. For now, read this brilliant novel, check out Bernie’s previous adventures, and count the days until the next one.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars