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Literature / The Other Side of Silence

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The Other Side of Silence is a 2016 novel by Philip Kerr.

It is the 11th novel in Kerr's series following the eventful career of detective Bernie Gunther. The story opens in 1956 with Bernie, unjustly accused of being a war criminal and wanted by law enforcement agencies all over the world, laying low as a concierge at a hotel at Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, on the French Riviera. He whiles away his time by playing bridge, but as it happens, time is weighing too heavily on the world-weary private eye, who has gone through several lifetime's worth of pain and suffering. In fact, he just tried to kill himself, by means of car exhaust in a closed garage—but the car stalled.

Bernie the bridge player is brought to the attention of none other than W. Somerset Maugham, the famous writer, who also is skilled at bridge. It turns out, however, that Maugham didn't really summon Bernie to play cards. No, Maugham is being blackmailed. It turns out that Maugham is both gay and a former MI6 spy, and there is an embarrassing photo out there of Maugham at a naked pool party with several other homosexuals, including Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean—two British spies who turned traitor and have recently defected to the Soviet Union. The blackmailer is Harold Hennig, an ex-Nazi and once a captain in the SD. Bernie and Hennig have an unpleasant history that goes back many years.


As per tradition in a Bernie Gunther novel, things get progressively more complicated. Tangentially involved is one Anne French, an aspiring writer who hopes to write a biography of Maugham and asks Bernie for his help. Anne and Bernie fall in love.


  • And This Is for...: When Bernie pulls the gun on Harold, he actually says "This is for" the nine thousand people who died on the Wilhelm Gustloff, for his old CO Captain Frisch whom Harold destroyed, and for Irmela and her unborn child. Then he shoots and kills Harold.
  • Blackmail: Harold Hennig is blackmailing Somerset Maugham with an incriminating photo. It turns out that the photo is just the ruse for a far more serious blackmail scheme, namely a threat to release a highly embarrassing recording of turncoat spy Guy Burgess.
  • Call-Forward: Bernie remembers "Eichmann and Mengele" as "people who got away with the most appalling crimes." In the end Eichmann didn't get away with it, as he was kidnapped by an Israeli special ops squad, taken to Israel, tried, and executed.
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  • Chekhov's Gun: An actual gun! After Julia Rose confesses to the Gun Struggle death of Antimo, Bernie takes the gun from her and promises to get rid of it. It's still in the coat that he takes from Anne's house at the end of the book, and he uses it to kill Harold Hennig.
  • Cigarette of Anxiety:
    • Robin Maugham has to light up a smoke before he can confess to Bernie about how he got tangled up with Harold Hennig.
    • At their last meeting, when Anne breaks up with him, she smokes a cigarette in an agitated way and Bernie observes that she's in distress. She betrays him to MI6 soon after.
  • Downer Beginning: The first sentence is "Yesterday I tried to kill myself." Bernie is alone and profoundly depressed after his wife Elisabeth left him.
  • Everyone Loves Blondes: When Bernie meets Irmela in 1944, he describes her as "blonde and buxom, just the way I like them."
  • Flashback: One chapter takes the action back to 1938, and establishes why Bernie hates Harold: Harold was part of a blackmail plot that involved the torture and beating of Bernie's old CO from World War I, a Captain Frisch. A second, longer flashback section set in 1944-45 finds Bernie in Konigsberg as the Russians bear down on the city. Bernie falls in love with a woman named Irmela, she gets pregnant...and thanks to Harold Hennig, Irmela winds up on the SS Wilhelm Gustloff, which is torpedoed and sunk by the Russians, killing some nine thousand people, including Irmela.
  • Gentlemen Rankers: Somerset Maugham's nephew Robin, who joined the army as a common soldier despite being very rich, because he was "a bit of a bolshie" and did not like the class privileges of officers.
  • The Greatest History Never Told: Namely, the biggest maritime disaster in history, the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff on January 30, 1945, killing over nine thousand people (six times the loss of life on the Titanic). Lampshaded when a flabbergasted Somerset Maugham hears this story and says he's never even heard of the Wilhelm Gustloff.
  • Gun Struggle: How Bernie's bridge partner Antimo was killed, as it turns out. Julia Rose, part of the bridge foursome, was having an affair with Antimo and he broke it off. She pulled a gun to kill herself, Antimo tried to take it from her, and he was shot. Bernie believes her and helps to cover it up.
  • High-Class Glass: Maugham puts a monocle on, apparently with the intention of looking high-class to Bernie, when they first meet.
  • Historical Domain Character: Many. W. Somerset Maugham is a main character. During the lengthy 1944-45 flashback, Bernie meets Erich Koch, the Gauleiters of Konigsberg. The British spies who come to France after getting word from Maugham are historical domain characters, including Anthony Blunt, who a few years after this would be outed as a Russian mole.
  • I Never Said It Was Poison: Robin Maugham's casual comment about Bernie being a private detective leads Bernie to say "Who told you that?". Bernie catches out Robin as being in cahoots with Harold Hennig.
  • Lampshade Hanging: Maugham says that "men with flaws" make better heroes in fiction, and Bernie says "then it's a surprise I haven't been in a novel already."
  • Literal Metaphor: When telling Julia to stay calm and not spill the beans about shooting Antimo, Bernie says If you keep your head about this, you can keep your head." (France still used the guillotine in the 1950s.)
  • Lowered Recruiting Standards: In the 1944-45 section, Bernie talks about the "People's Storm", the militia of old men and boys that the Nazis have raised as things grow desperate near the end of the war. Bernie sarcastically refers to them as the "Father and Son Brigade".
  • Perfumigation: Robin Maugham, an unsympathetic character, wears a "cloying cologne" which irritates Bernie.
  • Shout-Out: Many. Bernie enjoyed To Catch a Thief, which was filmed in the area.
  • Smart People Play Chess: When spinning his fanciful tale of how Markus Wolf masterminded the whole operation, Bernie calls Wolf "the chess player" and says that he played chess with Wolf once.
  • Unishment: In 1944, Bernie's transfer to Konigsberg is supposed to be a Reassigned to Antarctica-style demotion, but Bernie likes the city and it's in better shape than Berlin at that point anyway.