Philip Kerr joins us here at BookPeople this Saturday, April 2nd, at 4 PM, in conversation with Mark Pryor, author of the Hugo Marston series. Kerr will be speaking and signing his latest Bernie Gunther novel, The Other Side of Silence.
- Review by Molly Odintz
Historical mystery fans, rejoice! The ex-Berlin-policeman-turned-cynical-anti-fascist-detective Bernie Gunther has returned. Philip Kerr has just released another fantastic addition to the series, The Other Side of Silence. Gunther first appeared in Philip Kerr’s brilliant 1930s-set Berlin Noir trilogy, where he begins the series as a Berlin homicide detective, quits to become a private investigator, and alternates between jobs commissioned by the regime and by the victims of the regime. Later volumes in the series follow Bernie through the war, to the Russian front, to a prison camp, to France, and to all over South America. The series frequently features two timelines with linked or similar cases, to explore Bernie’s exploits in a non-linear manner.
In Kerr’s latest, Gunther, working for a hotel in mid-50s Paris, goes on a search for a new bridge partner after his previous partner dies in a lovers’ quarrel. His quest for bridge players brings him to a journalist on assignment to write a biography of Somerset Maugham, who loves bridge as much as he hates everything else. Gunther, spurred by the lethal combination of a beautiful woman and offer of money, goes to Maugham’s estate to unlock the great man’s secrets.
There, he learns that the Maugham is being squeezed by a blackmailer in possession of some compromising information, gleaned from a former attendee at Maugham’s weekend romps, who then defected to the Soviet Union from British intelligence. While Maugham is out and proud in France, his relatives’ careers and his visits to Britain could halt abruptly if the English public were to learn of his preference for other men. Kerr nips back and forth between blackmailers and turncoats for his duplicitous villains- the plot is as complex (although much more exciting) as the game of bridge itself; Kerr fills the novel with plenty of reversals and twists.
Through the subject of blackmail, Kerr explores the vulnerability of gay men in a repressive culture, where knowledge of their sexuality threatens not only their own prospects, but their families’ as well. Kerr, in his works, has frequently explored the vulnerability of minorities to predation, blackmail, marginalization, and murder. Concomitantly, he has spent just as much time exploring the invulnerability of guilty characters who have gotten off scot-free, or are on the run from a light sentence or mere public disapproval. Almost every character in a Bernie Gunther novel has hidden either their identity or their crimes.
Kerr does a great job, especially in The Other Side of Silence, at portraying the Cold War context that led to so few punishments for ex-Nazis. The blackmailer antagonist of The Other Side of Silence encounters Bernie Gunther during the war and after the war, never having faced punishment for his transgressions. This malevolent figure serves as an excellent reminder that, at least in the 1950s, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”
Even if the world simultaneously changes far too quickly and much too slowly, the world of Bernie Gunther, including his post-war adventures, is certainly not the world we occupy today. While reading this novel in line to vote for Bernie Saunders, I contemplated the Bernie in the book and the Bernie running for president, and thanked the ether that I was reading historical fiction, rather than current events.
Philip Kerr joins us here at BookPeople this Saturday, April 2nd, at 4 PM, in conversation with Mark Pryor, author of the Hugo Marston series. Kerr will be speaking and signing his latest Bernie Gunther novel, The Other Side of Silence. You can find copies on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.