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by Philip Kerr
GP Putnam's Sons, March 2016
416 pages
ISBN: 0399177043

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

The war may have ended a decade ago, but it is far from over for Bernie Gunther who, as this book opens, is lying low in the south of France covered by a false name (Walter Wolf) and false papers. He is working as a concierge at the Grand Hotel, Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferat, and has come close to killing himself. He has not decided whether to try again. Of course, being Bernie, he may find the decision taken out of his hands at one point or another.

To stave off boredom, he works on his bridge, a game he particularly favours as it does not encourage small talk at the table. But it is not his strength as a player that gets him invited to the Villa Mauresque, home of Somerset Maugham, to make a fourth. It is his past, which Maugham is strangely acquainted with, as a Berlin policeman, that the writer is interested in. Not as research for a novel, but because Maugham is being blackmailed and wants Bernie to act for him.

A photo has surfaced that shows the novelist in a compromising position in the company of Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt. Burgess had recently been outed as one of the "Cambridge spies" who'd been suppling the Soviet Union with intelligence for years; Blunt's involvement in the enterprise had yet to be made public. Maugham, at the moment one of the world's most successful authors, is worried on two counts - the apparent connection to a notorious spy, but worse, the evidence that he is himself homosexual, which is still a crime in Britain and the chief reason the old man has retired to France.

In the faintly over-ripe atmosphere of the French Riviera, Kerr concocts a fiendishly twisty plot. With the exception of Maugham and his nephew Robin, all the actors are sailing under false colours, evading their pasts and creating their futures with the help of forged documents, false identities, and sanitized life histories. As Walter Wolf, for example, Bernie presents himself as a veteran of the Catering Corps, which places him about as far as possible from how he actually spent the war. But like the others, he may deny his past but it still persists.

Nevertheless, it is the flashback to the dying days of the war, in Königsberg as the Russians bore down on the beleaguered city with vengeance in their hearts, that is the most memorable section of the book. More than a set-piece, it invokes the horror of those days, the terror in hearts of inhabitants of East Prussia about what the advancing Russians were planning for them, and the desperate voyage of the Wilhelm Gustloff, laden with military and civilians hoping to escape. The ship was sunk and perhaps as many as 9500 persons perished, the largest maritime loss in history, about five times as many as died on the Titanic. Of course, Bernie was in Königsberg at the time, though not aboard the ship. But how it all affected him explains a great deal about his present frame of mind.

Königsberg aside, on the whole I found this installment in the Bernie Gunther saga not quite as compelling as its predecessors. Bernie's dislike of homosexuals, while characteristic of the period, is wearing. The complex plot, while ingenious, has to be furthered at certain points by events that appear either improbable or irrelevant. What is at stake for the characters, while personally important, tends to shrink in comparison with events of the immediate past. Just the same, there is more than enough here to satisfy readers who have faithfully followed Bernie Gunther all the way from those long ago days of Berlin, 1933.

§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, April 2016

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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