Review: Surviving the Nazis, World War II at its most brutal, Soviet captivity, post-war deprivation, Latin American dictators, American gangsters, intelligence machinations and more, he had sought a quiet life, working as a hotel concierge in the French Riviera. But trouble seems to have an affinity for this world-weary, cynical Berliner, as a blackmailing case escalates into major — and lethal — international intrigue.
Bernie Gunther has managed to emerge bruised but alive from encounters with Reinhard ‘The Hangman’ Heydrich, Joseph Goebbels the ‘Mahatma Propagandhi’, the secret services of Batista’s Cuba and Peron’s Argentina, and assorted American, British, French, Soviet, East German and Israeli spies but will doing a favour for W. Somerset Maugham turn out to be his last mistake?
We find out in the eleventh book of the long-running series (from “March Violets”, 1989), but the first since “Field Grey” (2010) to deal with the present circumstances of our sassy, sardonic but incorrigible hero, who has never lost his sense of right and wrong, as he has his own brush with the notorious ‘Cambridge Ring’ (a group of senior British spies who turned to be working for the Soviets).
In “Field Grey”, Gunther, after experiences of American “hospitality” in Guantanamo Bay in the 1950s, and being made a yo-yo by various Western secret services when back in Europe, takes elaborate revenge on most enemies before escaping Cold War Berlin with a new identity — courtesy an unlikely benefactor. But then the next three were flashbacks about his World War II experiences, though in the previous installment (“The Lady From Zagreb”, 2015), we came to know, through the framing chapters, that he was now living in the south of France.
And it is in this playground of the rich and famous this begins, in true Bernie Gunther style, with our narrator ruing his failure to commit suicide the previous day though “staying alive was always a habit for me than an active choice”.
This, we learn, is not due to the reason that his wife (with whom he had fled Berlin in “Field Grey”), had enough and decided to go back home, but because he is bored — and then he had seen a reprehensible figure from his past, not still only alive but prosperous.
But Gunther sees some excitement when an alluring English woman, Anne French, supposed to be a writer and spending most of her time in the hotel, approaches him and suggests he teach her how to play bridge. Her excuse is that she needs this to get close to Maugham, who is living in the area and whose biography she has been commissioned to write. This sets off our hero down another slippery path, as he learns — yet again — that no good deed goes unpunished.
Managing to get invited to the Maugham household, Gunther becomes friendly with the elderly writer, who is quite taken with him and seeks his help to undertake a ticklish matter — retrieving a compromising photograph of him from a blackmailer. And this blackmailer is — no surprises — the hated figure from Gunther’s past who has just re-emerged.
But this is just the tip of the iceberg, for there is a bigger secret — much bigger than that of Maugham’s sexual inclinations — that could leave British intelligence a laughing stock and wreck its relations with its American counterparts, at a time when the world is getting more dangerous as Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalises the Suez Canal.
And somewhere is the hand of Gunther’s unlikely benefactor from years ago and our hero will have to think very fast and speak very persuasively to emerge alive from the maze he has entered.
Weaving in Hitler’s power grab over the military, the world’s greatest maritime disaster ever (over 9,000 killed), a great English author’s chequered life-story and espionage’s “the wilderness of mirrors” or elaborate double, triple or even multiple bluffs and deception to protect sources and confuse opponents, Kerr crafts another engrossing thriller which also underscores uncanny resemblances between intelligence services of different stripes but also how the past continues to exert influence over the present.