(The site of Philip Kerr’s new novel, the French Reviera)
In the eleventh installment of Philip Kerr’s thoughtful and entertaining Bernie Gunther series, we find our protagonist ensconced on the French Riviera contemplating suicide. For those familiar with Gunther’s odyssey through World War I, World War II and the post war world you will not be surprised by his behavior. Gunther is bored with his life and misses Berlin since he exiled himself to France, and became employed as a concierge at the Grand Hotel du Saint-Sean-Cap. Gunther’s problem is that he misses his life as a detective, but his exile is about to change when a guest named Harold Heinz Hebel checks into the hotel. The problem is that Hebel is an alias for Harold Hennig, a former Captain in the Nazi SD Security service, and an accomplished murderer. It is that recognition by Gunther that Kerr’s new novel THE OTHER SIDE OF SILENCE pivots. From that point on as Kerr develops his plot the reader is exposed to Gunther’s sarcastic humor and comments about a range of historical figures from Leopold II, to Gauguin, to numerous Nazi henchmen and British intelligence figures.
Kerr has created a number of scenarios that he develops with his usual skill as a writer and a practitioner of conspiracies. They begin when Gunther meets the nephew of the British writer, W. Somerset Maugham who is being blackmailed by none other than Harold Hennig. Maugham, a known homosexual finds out that Hennig has obtained a picture of him with three British spies who were turned by Soviet intelligence, Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess, and David MacLean. The picture is extremely compromising sexually and Maugham, even at eighty two years of age is worried about his reputation in England where homosexuality is illegal, and in the United States which is in the throes of the McCarthy hearings. He asks Gunther to be his agent with Hennig to make sure the transaction is carried out so he has nothing further to worry about. To show Maugham what he is dealing with, Gunther describes a situation that occurred in Berlin in 1938 when Gunther, no longer a German police detective, is approached by Captain Achim von Frisch, a man who saved his live in Turkey during the Great War. Frisch is also being blackmailed, by you guessed it, the same Harold Hennig. It seems that there is a political and military shakeup going on within the Nazi command structure, and another officer, General Freiheir von Fritsch is being accused of being a homosexual. Frisch, who previously was blackmailed by Hennig to the point of poverty is privy to important information that would clarify the situation. However, he is afraid, and wants Gunther to investigate and determine how high up in Hitler’s regime this plot reaches before he comes forward. In the end Hitler achieved his goals and took over as the head of the Reich’s military by stepping over any body that got in his way.
Kerr goes back and forth between Berlin in 1938, Konigsberg in 1944, and the south of France in 1956. For Gunther they are all related in some manner and they seem to all involve Harold Hennig. The events that took place for Gunther go a long way in explaining his sarcastic and cynical view of people and life in general. Apart from the plot, Kerr’s command of German history is excellent, though he does make a minor error by stating that Frederick III built a hunting lodge in Konigsberg in 1690, when in fact he did not assume the throne until 1888. However, his description of historical figures like Erich Koch, Erich Mielke, Guy Burgess, and the sinking of the MV Wilhelm Gustloff in early 1945, and the use by the CIA and KGB of former Nazis is right on, as is his integration of the 1956 Suez crisis as historical background.
Throughout the book Kerr is at his deceptive best as the novel reeks of disinformation, misdirection, spies, and counterspies, and of course conspiracies enveloped within other conspiracies. The intricacies of the plot are based upon Maugham’s actual experiences as a British spy during the late 1930s and World War II as the myriad of scenarios keeps the reader engrossed. Who is really behind the blackmail? Is it the Russian KGB, is it remnants of the Third Reich, is Hebel acting alone, or is it something else? Is the British intelligence community the real target? MI5 or MI6? Does the United States have a role to play? How does W. Somerset Maugham fit in? How about the Cambridge Five that was penetrated by Russian intelligence during and after World War II? How does Bernie Gunther fit into these complex questions? Why was Gunther’s bridge partner murdered? Does that fit into the paradigm? The answers will keep the reader riveted to THE OTHER SIDE OF SILENCE, and it makes one look forward to Kerr’s next Bernie Gunther novel, PRUSSIAN BLUE.
(The French Rviera, the site of Philip Kerr’s new novel)