The Other Side of Silence (2016)
Philip Kerr (1956)
The cold war may have ended decades ago, but the complex machinations of government security services during that period --- between enemies and even supposed allies --- have remained irresistible source material for storytellers. This includes writers of noir, and with The Other Side of Silence Philip Kerr brings his series featuring detective Bernie Gunther out of Germany and central Europe of the 1930’s and 1940’s, and squarely into the middle of cold war conspiracies.
Set in 1956, the story opens with Gunther working under an assumed name as a concierge at a fancy hotel on the French Riviera. His history of having been repeatedly coerced into working as a detective for high-ranking officers in the Nazi regime now has him hiding from potential threats on all sides: Western officials who see him as a former Nazi, and some of his former Nazi blackmailers --- now high ranking officials in the East German government --- who still keep an eye out for how he could be useful to them. His wife having left him and returned to Germany, Gunther’s mostly laying low and biding time, with no clear view of a future. With little to distract him from morosely considering his uncertain lot in life, he has sunk into a melancholy that has drifted dangerously close to depression.
The sudden appearance at the hotel reception of a former nemesis from Nazi Germany shakes Gunther out of his self-absorbed reverie. He barely has time to wonder if he’s been recognized before finding himself caught up in an escalating scheme of blackmail, one that threatens not only delicately maintained cold war relationships between various governments, but also, not surprisingly, his personal safety. When the trap is finally sprung, Gunther must bring to bear all of his decades of experience as a detective to try and escape the pernicious schemes of enemies old and new.
The Other Side of Silence is the eleventh of Kerr’s novels to feature detective Bernie Gunther, a series that began with the books of the trilogy Berlin Noir (my review of those first three novels here). The shift in the setting for this story compared to its predecessors from WWII (and the immediate pre- and post-war years) to a point well into the Cold War changes the atmosphere significantly. Though the tension ratchets up dramatically in the concluding few dozen pages of the story, for the most part the Cold War setting lacks the punch of the earlier novels set in Nazi Germany. Absent the deadly serious implications of the unremitting high-wire act that accompanied Gunther’s compulsory dealings with the Nazi regime, the plot becomes more of an intellectual game of cat and mouse, as spies for foreign powers collide on French soil in pursuit of national advantage.
That quibble aside, there remains much to enjoy in Kerr’s new novel. A portion of the novel includes extended recollections by Gunther of events during the war years, which help establish the backstory of his relationship with a key protagonist; these sections do crackle with the sharp tension induced by the constant risk of sudden death --- from both enemy forces as well as powerful elements of the Nazi regime pursuing their own agendas. And, as in his earlier stories in this series, Kerr brings a thoroughly researched historical reality to the The Other Side of Silence; by incorporating Gunther as a key bit player in among famous historical persons and events, he creates an engaging combination of satisfying noir and fascinating historical fiction.
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