When I first met W. Somerset Maugham, I was a precocious fourth-grader who had chosen Of Human Bondage for my book report. As Sister Eugene Marie calmly pointed out, I had understood most of the plot, but completely missed the point of Philip Carey’s struggle. Since then, I’ve enjoyed Maugham’s other works – Moon and Sixpence is one of my favorites – but never again read his masterpiece. Having found him in a different venue in Philip Kerr’s The Other Side of Silence, maybe I’ll try again.
Maugham is the famous writer who supposedly needs a fourth for bridge in Kerr’s eleventh novel starring the fictional Berlin detective Bernie Gunther. Kerr writes in a fast-paced staccato, and I’ve read none of his thirty books or the previous ten in the Bernie Gunther series. When I sought out his recent interview in the Book Review section of the New York Times – By the Book, none of the books on his nightstand appealed to me, but I did note Jean Stein’s West of Eden as a book I might try. When The Other Side of Silence opened with – “Yesterday, I tried to kill myself,” I almost stopped reading , but knowing Maugham was lurking in the shadows, I kept on.
In The Other Side of Silence Bernie Gunther, the former Berlin policeman and private eye, has relinquished his former exciting life as a German police officer and detective, and is now working with false papers as Walter Wolf, the concierge at the Grand Hôtel on the Riviera, near the lush residence of Maugham. Kerr uses Maugham’s homosexuality and his life as a British spy as the bait for a fast-paced mystery detective story.
When a former Gestapo officer, Harold Heinz Hebel, tries to blackmail Maugham with a salacious photo of him in a compromising position, Maugham enlists Bernie’s help. Hebel is also trying to blackmail Bernie, threatening to reveal his identity. Kerr obligingly fades back to pre-war Berlin in the late nineteen thirties, as Bernie explains his former relationship with Hebel and their shady relationship with the Nazis who were trying to abscond with yet another priceless treasure. The sinking of the Wilhelm Gustoff, “one of the greatest maritime disasters in history,” becomes a key motivator in the plot – Bernie’s pregnant lover died with over nine thousand others when it sank.
Despite the Mickey Spillane style of writing, I found myself trapped in the story – a mix of Alfred Hitchcock and Agatha Christie, with philosophical notes of Kant and historical references to the Stasi and Gestapo. The plot twists keep the story exciting and the flashbacks offer historical perspective, with Maugham’s history as a British spy in charge of a team of secret agents playing a key role. Overall, as mysteries go, it was a fun read, and the ending provides one last surprise – confirmed later in the author’s note as possibly scarier in reality than the fiction.
And the best part – Kerr’s characterization of Maugham awakened my yearning to read a good Maugham story again – maybe Ashenden, Maugham’s fictional adventures of a writer turned spy, based on his own experiences. I’ve ordered it from the library.