- - Thursday, March 24, 2016


By Philip Kerr

Marian Wood Books/Putnam, $27, 416 pages

Bernie Gunther is the tough Berlin cop who survived dealings with Nazi monsters like Joseph Goebbels, yet even Gunther is startled to find himself involved in a sex scandal that also involves famous British author Somerset Maugham on the French Riviera in the post-World War II years.

Gunther is living what for him is a quiet life as a concierge at a French luxury hotel, playing bridge and basically avoiding the trouble that seems to hound him when he encounters another of the beautiful and dangerous women who punctuate his life. The lovely Anne is the latest to catch his eye, especially when she explains that she is writing a book about the reclusive Maugham and wants to get in on their bridge games. Bernie, recently abandoned by his current wife and cautious about revealing his background in Germany, is willing to be lured into what turns out to be a nightmare of blackmail, murder and renewed connections with Nazis he once knew and hated.

Gunther is uneasy to find himself back in the brutally familiar world of World War II led by Hitler and his Gestapo, yet he is intrigued by the idea of friendship with Maugham, who is aged and frail yet living in a magnificent villa, and the author is also interested in friendship with Gunther despite the fact that the German cop is not homosexual and doesn’t even play very good bridge.

However, what most interests Maugham about Gunther is whether he can be of help in negotiating with a blackmailer who is in possession of a photograph that leaves no doubt of what the British novelist gets up to in his lurid social life. Maugham points out to Gunther that while he can live in peace with his assorted lovers in France, he cannot return to England without risking the kind of imprisonment imposed on Oscar Wilde, another well known homosexual.

Gunther is not enthusiastic about involvement in this sordid tangle, especially when he discovers that the blackmailer is well known to him as a sadistic brute with whom he had clashed in Germany during the war. Theirs is a mutual antipathy and Gunther is tempted to accede to Maugham’s suggestion that he dispose of the blackmailer — it isn’t as though he has not killed before.

While Gunther resists the idea of murder for money, he discovers that he has accidentally plunged into a major espionage plot involving Maugham’s role as a British spy during the wear, and that paves the way to unmasking a mysterious Soviet mole at the highest levels of British intelligence. Mr. Kerr does a nice job of characterizing an English spymaster and how he goes about protecting himself while exposing others.

The plot is factually based on Maugham’s reality as a secret agent, of which he wrote in his short stories, and the writer himself emerges as a tired man of considerable literary skills, sardonic humor and an awareness of the risks that result from his personal habits. The background of notorious British spies is explored, including a fascinating recording of Guy Burgess and his personal history as a lifelong supporter of the Soviets. Mr. Kerr also offers tantalizing glimpses of traitors like Anthony Blunt, keeper of the Royal art collection, and Kim Philby, who used his old boy connections to avoid capture as he brought about the deaths of many agents, and wound up safely in Russia, forever a warning of the British capacity to protect its own.

True to form, Gunther finds himself betrayed again by the beautiful and quite remarkably ruthless Anne, and is vividly reminded of how dangerous it still is to recall the days when he tangled with the Gestapo who still exist in lightly disguised form. After a series of harrowing beatings, Gunther survives to concede to himself as well as to his friend Maugham that he has reached a stage where he prefers a peaceful life answering silly questions in a grand hotel to beating up former Nazis. There seems no likelihood that Gunther will change in character or habits, and readers should be grateful for a law enforcement man who emerged from the horrors of Hitler with his principles intact.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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