A cold war spy thriller with sizzle

“The Other Side of Silence” by Philip Kerr (Putnam/Marian Wood, 400 pages, $27).

Philip Kerr publishes a new novel each year. Whenever another one comes out I push all my other books aside so that I can delve into his right away. I do have priorities. Kerr never lets me down.

The latest in his noir series that features the careworn yet still indomitable former Berlin detective Bernie Gunther is “The Other Side of Silence.” Devotees of these books know that Bernie could turn up anywhere along a timeline that runs from World War One to the mid-1950’s. A book might start in 1952 or 1937 or 1941. We also expect Bernie to have flashbacks to his time as a soldier during one of the world wars, or to his time as a POW in Russia, or to his stint as a hotel detective in Berlin.

As the book opens it is 1956-Bernie is living on the French Riviera under a fake name. He has gotten a job as the concierge for a luxury hotel. This is fairly typical of Bernie because he is more than anything else, a survivor. Bernie had been a diligent and loyal homicide detective in Berlin when the Nazis took power. He recognized rather quickly that the people who were now in charge could be far more dangerous than the murderers he was chasing.

Just down the road the English novelist Somerset Maugham resides in a magnificent villa. Maugham really existed-he was the James Patterson of his day. His books were best-sellers and he was wealthy because Hollywood was adapting his books for the big screen.

Bernie meets a beautiful woman. She claims to be doing research on the reclusive writer and wonders if Bernie knows Maugham or has access to him. Soon after that Bernie meets the famous man’s nephew and receives an invitation to come over to Maugham’s villa one evening to play bridge.

At this point this reviewer began to realize that even though there had just been a murder, the victim was a man Bernie knew from playing bridge, that this was not going to be a murder mystery after all. “The Other Side of Silence” is more cloak and dagger than that. This book is all about spy craft. It is an espionage novel.

Maugham had his public persona as an illustrious author and also a shadow side as a clandestine operative for British spy agencies. Maugham was homosexual as well, an orientation that was more acceptable to the French in those days, than to the British, who might have been rather inclined to prosecute him for his proclivities.

Bernie recognizes a German at the hotel. The man, a former Nazi with a fake passport remembers Bernie, too. This is a classic Philip Kerr moment; two men living under aliases have a chance encounter. What will happen next? Bernie has his secrets. He despises this man. A flashback to the war reveals why Bernie is feeling alarmed. Kerr has been writing this series since the 1980’s and it just keeps getting better with each new book.

Vick Mickunas of Yellow Springs interviews authors every Saturday at 7 a.m. and on Sundays at 10:30 a.m. on WYSO-FM (91.3). For more information, visit www.wyso.org/programs/book-nook. Contact him at vick@vickmickunas.

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