(Editor’s note: Scottish author Philip Kerr’s The Other Side of Silence, his 11th historical thriller starring Bernhard Gunther, was originally released in hardcover back in 2016. But the paperback edition came out this year—much to critic Jim Napier’s delight, as he explains in the following piece.)
Ten novels in, crime writer Philip Kerr shows no sign of slacking off. In The Other Side of Silence (Putnam), the latest installment of his long-running series featuring Berlin ex-cop and former private detective Bernie Gunther, Kerr again skillfully weaves fact with fiction to produce a spellbinding tale rooted in the events of the Second World War, and addresses his trademark themes of guilt and responsibility on all sides.
Aware of his vulnerability as a morally compromised homicide detective during the Nazi years, Bernie Gunther—now approaching his 60th birthday—is determined to keep a low profile. So it’s not surprising that in 1956 we find him working as a deferential concierge in the Grand Hôtel du Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, on the French Riviera. Like concierges around the world, Bernie focuses on his job as a fixer, discretely ministering to the needs of the hotel’s upscale clientele.
All of that is about to change, however, as one evening Bernie finds himself roped into becoming the fourth hand in a game of bridge. To his chagrin, he finds the game is presided over by none other than English author W. Somerset Maugham at his home, the Villa Mauresque, located on the edge of Cap Ferrat.
Bernie soon learns that the purpose of his invitation does not rest solely on his prowess at cards. His host is being blackmailed for his homosexuality, and while France may be tolerant of one’s personal proclivities, England and the United States—where much of Maugham’s personal fortune lies—are not; public exposure could jeopardize an American film deal, and prevent him from returning to his homeland, where homosexuality is still a crime.
Aware of Bernie’s formidable investigative skills, the reclusive, 82-year-old Maugham enlists him in an effort to deal with the brewing scandal. But complicating matters, Maugham had worked during the war for the British Secret Intelligence Service … which now takes a more-than-casual interest in this author’s case, wondering whether there is a mole within the organization and what the implications of such a turn might be.
There is another fly in the ointment here as well, in the form of a former captain in the Sicherheitdienst, the intelligence arm of the Nazi Party during the war, closely allied with the Gestapo. The captain and Bernie have an adversarial personal history, and are destined to play a game of cat-and-mouse, where the prize is not merely whose slimy past is exposed, but also who lives or dies.
The Other Side of Silence (the sequel to 2015’s The Lady from Zagreb) is a multi-layered and nuanced tour de force, a compelling and insightful novel. As always, Philip Kerr’s work is rooted firmly in historical fact, and many of the characters in this novel are not merely based on figures from real life, but carry their actual names. Kerr has even appended a brief account of each of them, including their fates, at the end of the book—which adds greatly to the reader’s enjoyment. This is a fine book for armchair historians and those who simply enjoy an entertaining and literate read. Highly recommended. ◊
Jim Napier is a crime-fiction reviewer based in Quebec. His book reviews and author interviews have appeared in several Canadian papers as well as on such websites as Spinetingler Magazine, The Rap Sheet, Shots, Crime Time, Reviewing the Evidence and Amazon.com. Napier also has an award-winning crime-fiction site, Deadly Diversions, and has recently released the novel Legacy (FriesenPress), his first book in a contemporary crime series.