The first ten novels in Philip Kerr’s series about a detective in mid-20th century Germany might be summed up as follows: an avowed democratic socialist named Bernie survives, and sometimes even thrives, despite political leadership’s hostility. But each victory is in its moment tempered, and eventually undone, by the sheer enormity of the Leader’s crimes.
The eleventh volume, The Other Side of Silence, introduces a discordant note: the unreliable narrator. Kerr has heretofore presented Bernie as just your average Fritz, going along to get along. Sure, circumstances may have forced him to collaborate with the SS throughout the Nazi ascendancy, and to flirt with the Stasi after the war, but which decent man has not wondered about his fate had he been born to mutti und vati in 1910, and shuddered at the possibilities? The adventures of Bernie Gunther have been, in best part, an extended meditation on this theme. Martin Amis, in his novel The Zone of Interest (more mischievous title: Marty and Hitch at Auschwitz), put it this way: "We were obstructiv Mitlaufere…We went along, we went along with, doing all we could to drag our feet and scuff the carpets and scratch the parquet, but we went along. There were hundreds of thousands like us, maybe millions like us." Perhaps. By the time the curtain closes on The Other Side of Silence Bernie Gunther seems less obstructiv Mitlauf than kriegsverbrechen Angeklagte.
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Enthusiasm for a certain style of historical fiction requires generosity. Of course Harry Flashman spoke every language known to man. Of course Stephen Maturin always appeared at just the right moment to preserve Jack Aubrey. And of course Bernie Gunther served as Reinhard Heydrich’s reluctant fixer, Josef Goebbel’s less than enthusiastic errand boy, and Erich Mielke’s ambivalent alibi. The genre demands that Bernie bed starlets, avoid trigger duty with die einsatzgruppen in Belarus, bounce through the Balkans with a young Kurt Waldheim, help Heinrich Himmler conduct a séance, and outwit Allen Dulles (for which transgression Bernie earned an internment at Guantanamo Bay; quite literally a day at the beach for Bernie, who also survived a Red Army POW camp). With such allowances, it was plausible that a smartass like Bernie, obviously modeled on Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe, could navigate the master race’s upper echelons, all the while scratching the parquet and scuffing the carpets, without being put up against the wall and shot in the head. Generous though his readers may be, however, Philip Kerr seems at last disenchanted with Bernie Gunther.
This time out, Bernie’s on the French Riviera ten years after the war. He’s working under an assumed name as head concierge at a luxury hotel hoping, like so many other SS officers around the world, not to be noticed. A five-star hotel comes naturally enough to Bernie, since he spent much of the late 1930s as house detective at the legendary Adlon Hotel in Berlin. Of course, summoning stewards and recommending restaurants is less rewarding work than rifling through the luggage of the Third Reich’s best guests. And neither is as satisfying as solving murders for Kripo, the Berlin Police Magisterium where Bernie happily toiled during the Weimar years, following honorable service in the Great War’s trenches.
In The Other Side of Silence Bernie’s not as young as he used to be, and finds such excitement as he can from the small tasks the French police send his way: Who is the heiress sleeping with? How much money did the shipping magnate drop at the tables? Pathetic stuff for a former Hauptmann in Heydrich’s intelligence service. Small wonder the book opens with Bernie trying to do himself in, but not quite succeeding. One dark and drunken night of the soul Bernie stumbles into his car, turns it on and passes out. But the goddamned French can’t even make a decent garage door. Given the series’ body count, it’s worth noting that the only person Bernie Gunther cannot kill, when he has a mind and the means to do so, is Bernie Gunther. Alive and shuffling, Bernie returns to his job and his bridge game, until a ghost from his past walks through the doors of the hotel. Thus begins the formula: a dame, a complication, and a mystery in due course unraveled.
Kerr milked Chandler for a long time in the series, relying more on the hero’s charisma than the plot’s tidiness. Who can blame him? Chandler’s road map has inspired American classics as diverse as Jim Morrison’s LA Woman and the Coen brothers’ Big Lebowski. Yet no one has succeeded quite like Chandler in the same genre, until Phillip Kerr. True, the series’ flashes of anti-Americanism are boring, not least because the entire enterprise rests on a successful Yankee form. In Bernie’s earlier adventures these flashes were irritants, chalked up magnanimously to hyper-realism—an awful lot of Germans, whether they liked it or not, did turn east for succor after the war. The Other Side of Silence hints that Bernie’s sneers at the Yanks with their chocolates and cigarettes and naïve thuggery might not be mere conveniences. More, though Kerr might suppose less, is at stake than one more British novelist’s disappointment with twenty-first century America.
Liberation has been brewing in the series. The ninth volume, Prague Fatale, saw Kerr abandon Chandler’s shaggy dog conventions in favor of tighter plotting. The result was an homage to Agatha Christie—who murdered the dead SS officer in Heydrich’s mansion outside Prague? Bernie worked that one out, and while The Lady From Zagreb returned to more established themes and schemes, The Other Side of Silence is an homage too. It’s not Agatha Christie this time though—it’s John le Carré.
Not long ago, Kerr remarked that "(j)ust as the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald define the early part of the 20th century, so those of John le Carré define the end of it. His work not only bookends the Cold War, it defines it and provides its glossary … he is certainly our greatest living writer in English and ranks alongside Greene and Waugh. Long after the likes of Updike and Bellow are long forgotten, people will still look to le Carré to discover a world that now seems to us almost unthinkable."
That bleak, it seems. At any rate, in light of such praise, The Other Side of Silence can be read as fan fiction, as a daydreamer’s attempt at an origin story. We’re still a few years ahead of spies coming in from the cold but Smiley’s here, unnamed. Ann has an -e at the end. Bill Haydon goes by Kim Philby. Events revolve around le Carré’s great influence, Somerset Maugham, who is spending his twilight years on the Cote d’Azur cheating at bridge, not writing, and being blackmailed. His long career of outrageous homosexuality and discreet exploits as a British spy provide fertile ground for all three activities.
Maugham enlists Bernie to thwart the blackmailers but things are not quite what they seem—of course. Before too long Smiley, referred to only as "the monk", is interrogating Bernie Gunther in a polite but authoritative manner, along the lines of "Were you not an SS intelligence officer? Are you not an East German intelligence operative? Are you not part of a plot to blackmail Mr. Maugham and thereby pass disinformation to British intelligence?" Suffice to say old George makes a pretty strong case. Bernie’s responses, while enough to save his life, are far from fully exonerating. It’s all very cleverly done, and calls into question everything Bernie’s told us about himself in the first ten volumes of his story. At the very least, it leaves Bernie abetting Erich Mielke’s scheme to confuse and undermine MI6.
Philip Kerr has, rather unexpectedly at this mature stage of the series, injected some contingency into the saga of Bernie Gunther. Prior to The Other Side of Silence it never seemed likely that Bernie would share the fate of many other SS officers: dangling at the end of a rope in Poland or Israel. Indeed, the idea that Bernie might deserve such a fate was unthinkable. Bernie was a German we could like, even root for. He was tough, cynical, compromised but essentially innocent. Like John le Carré, Bernie regarded Nazi Germany’s defeat as well deserved, and took care not to regard either side in the Cold War too pristinely. After The Other Side of Silence Philip Kerr, at any rate, seems not so sure. In fact, Philip Kerr may be learning what George Smiley had trouble crediting, but what that great American Augie March knew to be true: "That's the struggle of humanity, to recruit others to your version of what's real."