The Other Side of Silence

Written by Philip Kerr

Review written by LJ Hurst

Initially, L. J. Hurst worked in the backrooms of the media industry. He now divides his time between work for an international scientific publisher and a rather more British independent bookseller. In years past he was a regular attendee at the Shots on the Page Festivals from whence Shots Mag sprung

The Other Side of Silence
Quercus Publishing
RRP: £18.99
Released: March 29 2016

It is 1956 and the French Cote d'Azur is basking in sunshine and the warm glow given out by millionaires. Just along the coast Monaco is preparing for a fairy-tale royal wedding. Like an old tortoise, or more like a venomous reptile whose cold blood is being forced to circulate once more in the rising heat, is the octogenarian author Somerset Maugham living up at his villa; while down in the town, though admittedly in an up-market hotel, the German-born concierge Walter Wolf has his eyes about him. But things are far from what they appear.

The concierge  sees attractive women, he may see strangers but he sees their dubious activities ; he sees the unattractive collapses of important guests but knows how to remove them without causing a fuss. Unfortunately, a concierge works in a public place – he too might be seen. Walter Wolf – the name now being used by former German police office Bernhard Gunther – finds that he has been noticed at least twice when he would have preferred not to be, though one of those observations brings him the benefit of the company of an attractive woman, something to which Bernie has never been averse.

Before long that second observer [whom Bernie saw in return], has entered the life of Somerset Maugham. Bernie reveals to the old man, he has also re-entered Bernie Gunther’s own.  It appears that Maugham is being blackmailed, and Bernie had something similar happen to him in the last days of the Nazi Reich, when Bernie was on the Russian front. It did not end well then, but in the decade since the German surrender a lot of people have managed to put a lot of things behind them – including the names by which they are still being sought as war criminals – and Harold Hennig wants to keep things that way with Bernie. Once you hear how things ended between the two in 1945, though, you might wonder why Bernie should.

Maugham still has contacts with the British secret services from his time in the First World War (fictionalised as Ashenden, of course), and he is being used as a conduit for materials which the British might still want never to emerge. Burgess and Maclean had fled to Russia in May 1951, and Hennig has a tape of Burgess being debriefed by the NKVD, or else a very good forgery designed to cause even more discombobulation at spy HQ in London, as well as a photograph of an antebellum gay party at Maugham's, attended by Burgess and others – again distressing proof if true of a security risk ignored for two decades. Bernie, bright as he is, surely can do something to help?

Unfortunately, just as Bernie has recently been unable to avoid being seen, he was unable to avoid other things in the past. Go back to Bernie's adventures in Field Grey and you will see references to his time in Konigsberg, the city where The Other Side of Silence says he first met Hennig, but you will discover also his time a year or two later when he had to work with the German Communist forces, soon to take control of their own East Germany. What he did for them – well, I am a little hazy, but I can well believe that it should come back to hurt Bernie in 1956 – and not just his credibility, but bodily, too. Luckily, his intelligence wins out, though we readers [especially British readers], will see the ironies of history and read in despair.

Whether it helps to have read the earlier books in the series I am not sure. I have now read The Other Side of Silence twice, and reached for my other volumes to find where Bernie did work with the East Germans, just to re-assure myself, vague as I am still. It does, though, create a stunning dramatic reversal. On the other hand, Bernie's repeated references to his wives – he says he has been married three times, though I could only remember the one who left him in A German Requiem – seems like a pistol on the wall which never goes off, particularly as his Cote d'Azur amour is very much a business relationship and treated as such.

In some ways, The Other Side of Slence begins like a pastiche of Raymond Chandler – the detective summonsed to the rich man's mansion, the Cote d'Azur sun replacing that of California, but soon events begin to diverge. There is torture, death and shooting on the way but the most impressive feature to emerge is Bernie Gunther's intelligence, not all the time but finally when he needs it most.  I didn't see it coming, and that is a recommendation.

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