The Other Side of Silence

9780399177040_p0_v2_s192x300   When I first met W. Somerset Maugham, I was a precocious fourth-grader who had chosen Of Human Bondage for my book report.  As Sister Eugene Marie calmly pointed out, I had understood most of the plot, but completely missed the point of Philip Carey’s struggle.  Since then, I’ve enjoyed Maugham’s other works – Moon and Sixpence is one of my favorites  – but never again read his masterpiece.  Having found him in a different venue in Philip Kerr’s The Other Side of Silence, maybe I’ll try again.

Maugham is the famous writer who supposedly needs a fourth for bridge in Kerr’s eleventh novel starring the fictional Berlin detective Bernie Gunther.  Kerr writes in a fast-paced staccato, and I’ve read  none of his thirty books or the previous ten in the Bernie Gunther series.  When I sought out his recent interview in the Book Review section of the New York Times – By the Book, none of the books on his nightstand appealed to me, but I did note Jean Stein’s West of Eden as a book I might try.  When The Other Side of Silence opened with – “Yesterday, I tried to kill myself,” I almost stopped reading , but knowing Maugham was lurking in the shadows, I kept on.

In The Other Side of Silence Bernie Gunther, the former Berlin policeman and private eye, has relinquished his former exciting life as a German police officer and detective, and is now working with false papers as Walter Wolf, the concierge at the Grand Hôtel on the Riviera, near the lush residence of Maugham.  Kerr uses Maugham’s homosexuality and his life as a British spy as the bait for a fast-paced mystery detective story.

When a former Gestapo officer, Harold Heinz Hebel, tries to blackmail Maugham with a salacious photo of him in a compromising position, Maugham enlists Bernie’s help. Hebel is also trying to blackmail Bernie, threatening to reveal his identity.  Kerr obligingly fades back to pre-war Berlin in the late nineteen thirties, as Bernie explains his former relationship with Hebel and their shady relationship with the Nazis who were trying to abscond with yet another priceless treasure.  The sinking of the Wilhelm Gustoff, “one of the greatest maritime disasters in history,” becomes a key motivator in the plot – Bernie’s pregnant lover died with over nine thousand others when it sank.

Despite the Mickey Spillane style of writing, I found myself trapped in the story – a mix of Alfred Hitchcock and Agatha Christie, with philosophical notes of Kant and historical references to the Stasi and Gestapo.  The plot twists keep the story exciting and the flashbacks offer historical perspective, with Maugham’s history as a British spy in charge of a team of secret agents playing a key role.  Overall, as mysteries go, it was a fun read, and the ending provides one last surprise – confirmed later in the author’s note as possibly scarier in reality than the fiction.

9781412811729_custom-5f064d218dc602df51d59d4b81f735be7e966631-s300-c85  And the best part – Kerr’s characterization of Maugham awakened my yearning to read a good Maugham story again – maybe Ashenden, Maugham’s fictional adventures of a writer turned spy, based on his own experiences.  I’ve ordered it from the library.



The Distance

9780385536998Helen Giltrow’s The Distance is a fast-paced thriller with  a crew of characters who keep changing alliances and identities, and a twisting plot involving murder, sabotage, and relentless secrets.

Wealthy socialite Charlotte Anton operates undercover as Karla, with her steady band of support staff – reminiscent of the “warriors” in the popular television show, Scandal.  They manage impossible uncover tasks, redefining and relocating identities – some not so savory.  Simon Johannsen, a former special ops sniper, has been hired to kill a woman prisoner inside a low security experimental prison.  He contacts Karla to get him in, under the cover of a prisoner.

As the action accelerates, Karla relentlessly pursues the reason for the hit – what has this woman done and who wants her dead?  Meanwhile, Johannsen faces his own problems inside the prison, as ghosts from his past threaten to reveal his cover.  As with any good thriller, no one is who they seem and their motivations shift continually.  Lots of fun – I held my breath til the end – when the unexpected reveals all.  And, as any Hitchcock fan will tell you, all the terror needs a release at the end – and Giltrow delivers.

I found this title on a list of 2014 published books that readers might have missed –  glad I found it.

Mission to Paris

World War II is brewing in 1933, Hitler is intimidating the Parisians while misleading Chamberlain, and a Hollywood actor born in Vienna is an enticing tool for both sides in Alan Furst’s Mission to Paris.

The plot stumbles along slowly as screen star Fredric Stahl gets comfortable in Paris and begins work on his new war movie.  Stahl naively underestimates the political power of the German forces around him, and prefers to think of the Paris of his youth.  He’s accidentally assaulted in a street protest, and is threatened by a German Nazi officer who breaks into his Paris hotel, but the action is more insidious than outright lethal.

Stahl is easy to like despite his tedious innocent-abroad persona.  He is as comfortable drinking beer in a backdoor saloon as he is sipping champagne at a society soirée.  As he acquires a political conscience, strong women add to the intrigue: svelte Russian actress and superspy Olga Orlova, Nazi sympathizer and society hostess Baroness von Reschke, socialite and lover Kiki, and demure seamstress and Polish political exile Renate Steiner.

After witnessing the infamous Kristallnacht, halfway through the book, Stahl finally becomes the undercover agent you’ve been waiting for, and the action escalates into spy thriller mode.   Stahl successfully passes on war secrets while undercover as the movie star under the direction of a wry American embassy official.  When the cast and crew relocate to Hungary to shoot a scene in a castle, the danger of passing through Germany changes his fate.  A finale includes a romantic getaway with assassins in hot pursuit.

Although this is Furst’s twelfth spy thriller, it is my first encounter with his historical espionage tales, often compared to those of John le Carré – an intelligent blend of history and drama with enough suspense to keep you turning pages.  Through Furst’s characters, the fear of pre-war Paris seemed real; not even a famous Hollywood actor could escape the terrorizing hammer of the Nazis.

The novel ends in 1939, a year before France was attacked by Germany “on 10 May, 1943, and surrendered on 21 June”  – and three years before the July, 1942 Vel’ d’Hiv’ Paris roundup of Jews used by Tatania de Rosnay in Sarah’s Key (targeted for discussion soon by one of my book groups).  Furst provides the historical foundation for that event in Mission to Paris by clearly addressing the French complicity with the Nazis.

Leaving on a Jet Plane…Disney Update

I’d seen the movie; it was a long flight, with little hope of sleep, so I started the paperback. Eric van Lustbader’s “Last Snow.”

McClure, the President’s old friend, trusted confidante, and special assistant – who saved the President’s daughter in a previous book ( I did not read) – finds himself in the middle of murder, espionage, and intrigue with, of course, a beautiful Russian spy. Got me through the night.

At Disney, I found books in my room – but not what I expected – pictures of Moby Dick, Pride and Prejudice, Alice in Wonderland, and The Wind in the Willows.