It’s a Mystery: “Good fortune rarely walks you out the door to your car”
The Other Side of Silence
By Philip Kerr
Marian Wood/G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2016
The Unfortunate Englishman
By John Lawton
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2016
The French Riviera is the setting for The Other Side of Silence, Philip Kerr’s 11th Bernie Gunther novel (after 2015’s The Lady from Zagreb). It is 1956 and Bernie is working as a concierge at the Grand Hôtel in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat under a false identity, Walter Wolf. It’s a mind numbing job: “a concierge…That’s a little bit like being a policeman if your idea of being a policeman is directing traffic.
Where the world is monotonous it’s also safe – well, almost.
Between Nice and Monaco, Cap Ferrat is a pine-planted spur that projects into the sea like the dried-up and near useless sexual organs of some old French roué…
It’s clear that the innate cynicism that defined Bernie in the Berlin of the forties has slowly morphed into a darker despair in the postwar Bernie.
“I have a soul that feels like it’s at least five hundred years old. It’s looked into the abyss so many times it feels like Dante’s walking stick.”
Bernie’s world suddenly becomes dangerous when a figure from his past checks into the hotel:
“Me, I don’t believe in the devil but I’m still scared of him and I was now possessed of an uncomfortable feeling deep in my guts that he’d arranged for something doubly unpleasant to come my way.”
He looks like a banker or a Hollywood producer and goes by the name of Harold Heinz Hebel. But his real name is Harold Hennig and during the last few months of the war he’d been a captain in the Nazi security service. An ex-cop like Bernie never forgets a face, especially when it belongs to a mass murderer who, in 1945, was responsible for the deaths of thousands, among them a woman Bernie loved: “Nine thousand people—men and women and a great many children is a lot of reasons to remember a face like Harold Heinz Hennig’s.
Since the war, Hennig has reaped the benefits of a lucrative career as a blackmailer. What’s he doing here?
The answer lies with the resident of the nearby Villa Mauresque. Supposedly he needs someone to fill the fourth seat in a bridge game that is the usual evening recreation. Bernie, who has taken up the game as a diversion from boredom, is tapped. The resident is W. Somerset Maugham, one of the most famous living writers in the world. Maugham is being blackmailed by Hennig. Maugham wants Bernie to be his agent in the transaction. The sly old spy—he was in the British Secret Service during the First World War—knows all about Bernie’s past. Bernie had a feeling that his presence at the bridge table had very little to do with proximity or card skills.
Hennig posesses a photograph taken in 1937 that shows the writer with a group of naked men in compromising positions beside a swimming pool – one of them is the infamous spy and homosexual, Guy Burgess, who, with Donald Maclean, defected to Moscow in 1951. Hennig wants $50,000 for its release. And while Maugham’s notorious sexuality is an open secret in France, being gay is still a criminal offense in Great Britain and it matters a great deal to the author that he not be prevented from going back there. Plus, evidence of his cavorting with infamous spies in the current world climate has greater ramifications. McCarthyism is rampant and Maugham has lucrative film contracts in America.
It’s worth noting that Maugham’s experience in British Intelligence led to the novel Ashenden or The British Agent (1928). Eric Ambler described it as “the first fictional work on the subject [the life of the secret agent] by a writer of stature with first-hand knowledge of what he is writing about.” Ashenden was filmed as The Secret Agent in Britain in 1936 and directed by Alfred Hitchcock. As Bernie is the first to admit, the past never stays dormant for an old Berlin gumshoe and an even older spook.
Enter a femme fatale cleverly disguised as an attractive American journalist—this is a Bernie Gunther novel, after all. Ostensibly, she wants Bernie to introduce her to Maugham so she can write his biography. Actually, she has a slew of secret nefarious reasons for an introduction, including one that’s a knockout surprise.
The Other Side of Silence is a wonderfully Byzantine tale of treachery and counter treachery wherein the scam involves Bernie as much as it does Maugham. As a matter of fact, the celebrated novelist turns out to be quite a match for Bernie and as wickedly mischievous a foil as Bernie has ever encountered. Kerr, always a master at misdirection, takes sleight of hand to a whole new level. A triumph in every sense.
I’d like to believe that Bernie Gunther and John Wilfred Holderness, known to most as Joe Wilderness, crossed paths in postwar Berlin although, of course, there’s no record of it. God knows, they tread often enough on the same turf and their time frame just might have overlapped In John Lawton’s first Wilderness novel, Then We Take Berlin (2013), Joe Wilderness, a former East End cat burglar trained as a boy by his grandfather, is drafted into the RAF in 1945 just as he turns eighteen. A high score on the IQ test gets the attention of intelligence officer Lieutenant Colonel Alec Burne-Jones who takes him under his wing. He sends him to Cambridge to learn Russian and German and recruits him as an agent in MI6. Joe is dispatched to Berlin where he along with another Englishman, an American officer and one from the Russian NKVD become major players in the black market. “Smuggling became like adultery. A secret that would never trouble the conscience, but which required a strategy to avoid detection.”
Unfortunately, they get too greedy and their scam runs into more than a spot of trouble. Joe is rescued by Burne-Jones who eventually becomes, not so incidentally, his father-in-law. As the novel ends, it is 1963 and he is no longer an agent having resigned in 1961 (without Burne-Jones’s approval). More to the point, he has just inadvertently shot the female nuclear physicist he was trying to smuggle out of East Berlin.
The Unfortunate Englishman, the second Joe Wilderness adventure, begins where the first one ended. Wilderness is in a Berlin jail cell where he appears destined to spend a long chunk of time for his shooting fiasco. Burne-Jones (MI6 spymaster and father-in-law) turns up in the nick of time and bails him out, but with strings attached – he’s got to go back into the game:
“Sign on the dotted, Joe, and all this will just go away.
Wilderness read the page in front of him.
Burne-Jones said nothing. Just stared back at him, accepting no contradiction.
Wilderness turned the page around to show him.
“There’s a typo. The date’s wrong. You’ve typed 1961 instead of 1963.”
“If I sign this, it’s as though I’ve never left. It’s dated the same day I resigned.
“Quite my arse. It means all the time I’ve been here I have technically been working for you.”
“And how else do you think I could get you out? The West Berliners want your guts for garters. You were found with a half-dead woman clutching a smoking gun.”
“No, Alec, that is not the case. There was no gun.”
“Oh. Got rid of it did you?”
Wilderness said nothing.
…”Sign and walk, or keep up this nonsensical surliness and get charged with attempted murder.”
The sense that once again Alec Burne-Jones had him by the balls was palpable. A tightening in the groin demanding all the flippancy he could muster.
As they stepped out into the summer sunshine on the Kurfürstendamm,
Wilderness blinked, looked at Burne-Jones and said, “You owe me two years’ back pay.”
And Burne-Jones said, “Joe, how exactly did you get rid of the gun?”
The question is rhetorical of course. Wilderness is thrust into a high level cloak-and-dagger scheme and charged with greasing the wheels on a spy exchange. He’s arranging to swap Geoffrey Masefield for Bernard Alleyn.
Masefield is a metallurgist from Derby who salivates at the chance to be an MI6 agent. He sees himself as James Bond instead of the real Geoffrey Masefield, who looks like a cartoon character from the sketchbook of Ronald Searle. Armed with his romantic notions of spycraft, he is inserted into East Germany and Moscow as part of a trade commission. He falls in love with his tourist guide who works for the KGB. Actually, he gets caught in a “honeytrap” with the guide and her twin sister, who works in the Ministry of Defense. Played by the Russians, Masefield is arrested, and sent to Lubyanka, the KGB headquarters in Moscow. It had been Wilderness’s contention all along that Masefield’s vision of the job at hand was based on his fondness for spy novels.
KGB mole Captain Leonid Liubimov has been living as Bernard Forbes Campbell Alleyn for fourteen years. He has a senior position in the Directorate of Military Operations and Intelligence in London and a wife and two daughters. Arrested for treason in 1959, he is in prison at Wormwood Scrubs, London. In considering what kind of traitor the captured Alleyn is Wilderness, who is assigned as his interrogator by Burne-Jones posits:
he’s utterly oblivious to the nature of his crime…. I think he thinks he’s an Englishman…an unfortunate Englishman. He is acculturated to Englishness. To being English.
And when Wilderness finally has to report to Burne-Jones that he’s hit a wall where Alleyn and information are concerned his statement is telling: “He wondered who played at being the Englishman better…himself or Leonid L’vovich Liubimov?”
The center of this stylish, richly textured espionage novel is the classic set-piece of the Cold War thriller, the swap of imprisoned spies on a bridge between East and West Berlin. But what drives the story is how the characters got there, physically and emotionally. There are scenes in many cities, London, Paris, Vienna and New York. But it is the chilly, noir world of postwar Berlin that matters most here. Lawton portrays it as a kaleidoscope turning from the grey of despair to the red of ideology soaked in blood.
With The Unfortunate Englishman, Lawton shows himself to be the master of colorful, unpredictable characters: thieves, scoundrels, drunks, assassins, madmen, fools, bureaucrats, and not-quite-rogue, confused and bewildered professionals. But his crowning achievement is Joe Wilderness. Loaded with personal charm and animal magnetism, he’s a highly intelligent cynic in whose world moral ambiguity is the norm. “Truth and lies were all the currency a spook needed.”
He’s a closet bookworm and a born mimic. Few accents can elude his ear and tongue for long. He can go from cockney to upper class English effortlessly. It’s stood him in good stead as he moves around in the clandestine worlds of the stealer and the spy
And pre-denouement Wilderness and his black market buddies reunite to attempt one last ditch caper. It involves ten thousand bottles of prewar first growth claret that they first stole in 1947. The way they carry it off would make the Keystone Cops proud.
As Wilderness orchestrates the Masefield/Alleyn exchange, he must use all his resources—friends and foes alike—on both sides of the Wall. He must avoid Hinterbliebenen, a condition found in divided Berlin as well as Europe after the war. It’s complex in meaning, difficult to describe, invoking the feelings of bereavement, loss, and abandonment, the emotions of the displaced. The payoff is as unexpected as it is unpredictable.
Lawton brilliantly weaves real historical events into the narrative: A painstaking description of barbed wire going up in the middle of Berlin in 1961, Khruschev and Kennedy in Vienna in 1961 (“Fred Astaire meets Oliver Hardy”), the 1948 Russian blockade and the U.S. airlift that defeated that effort, and a delightful fictional take (or is it?) on the moments leading up to J.F.K’s
celebrated “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in 1963. His novel is a gripping, intense, inventive, audacious, wryly humorous, and thoroughly original thriller.
Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.