Thursday, June 23, 2016

Review of The Other Side of Silence by Philip Kerr (Quercus, 2016)

1956, Cote D’Azur.  An ex-kripo detective in pre-war Berlin, Bernie Gunther is now working as the concierge in the Grand Hotel du Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, spending his days helping guests and nights playing bridge or trying to drink his troubles away.  And Bernie has a habit of attracting or creating trouble.  When he spots an old foe, an ex-gestapo member and accomplished blackmailer, Harold Hebel, enter the hotel he senses the past might once again be about to come back and haunt him.  Not long after he’s asked by the novelist and former spy Somerset Maugham, who is residing locally, to be the intermediary in paying a sum of money for a compromising photograph.  Reluctantly, Bernie agrees wanting justice for past misdeeds but knowing that they’ll be much more to the sting operation if Hebel is involved.

The Other Side of Silence is the eleventh book in the Bernie Gunther series.  This one is mainly set in 1956 in the south of France, but shuttles back to Berlin in 1938 and Konigsberg in 1944/45 for brief interludes.  Bernie is his usual self-depreciating, world weary and sarcastic self, living a life where he unwittingly comes into contact with famous people and gets dragged into and implicated in key events.  In this case, he’s drawn into the world of Somerset Maugham and the Cambridge spies, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and Anthony Blunt, as well as recounting his link to the sinking of the MV Wilhelm Gustloff in 1945, in which around ten thousand people perished.  The central hook is Bernie being hired by Maugham to act as intermediary in a blackmail payment to an old foe and former gestapo member, the odious Harold Hebel.  It’s a nice setup and Kerr spins out an interesting tale, working in a femme fatale, a sinister twist, and a murder subplot.  At times, the pacing and plotting felt a little uneven, and the murder subplot was a bit of an unnecessary distraction, but there are plenty of really well-crafted scenes.  The denouement, in which Bernie creates a large lie to save himself while placing his head in another noose, is particularly nicely done.  As usual, Kerr draws a strong set of well realised characters and nicely situates the tale historically.  Overall, an enjoyable addition to the series that fills in more gaps in Bernie’s eventful life.

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