The French Riviera, 1956. A world-weary Bernie Gunther is working under a false name as a hotel concierge. His attempts to keep his nose clean go horribly awry when a wartime acquaintance sucks him into a blackmail plot involving one of the most famous British writers of the 20th century and the Cambridge Spies.
Bernie is missing his old detective life when his past walks through the door in the shape of Harold Hennig, a former captain in the Nazi security service - the man who, in 1945, was responsible for the deaths of thousands, among them a woman Bernie loved. Hennig now enjoys a lucrative career as a blackmailer.
Hennig's target on the Cote d'Azur is a famous resident with a dark past and plenty to hide - the writer, Somerset Maugham. A shared love of bridge draws Bernie to Maugham's magnificent villa, where Maugham tells him of the existence of a very compromising photograph. Taken in 1937, it shows Maugham among a group of naked men beside a swimming pool - one of whom is the infamous spy and homosexual, Guy Burgess, who, with Donald Maclean, has recently defected to Moscow. Hennig has the photograph and is demanding $50,000 for its release.
Bernie is reluctant to become Maugham's agent but his former life has made him as vulnerable to blackmail as Maugham himself. Not only that - he has a massive score to settle with Hennig.
Set in 1956 on the French Riviera, Kerr's assured 11th Bernie Gunther novel (after 2015's The Lady from Zagreb) opens on a dark note, with Bernie's confessing to a failed suicide attempt after his wife abandoned him. Bored by his current job as a hotel concierge, Bernie is brought back into action by bestselling writer and former spy Somerset Maugham, who lives in a nearby villa. Maugham, who's gay at a time when that was still a criminal offense in Britain, needs Bernie's help in dealing with a blackmailer who's threatening to publish a compromising photograph. Meanwhile, an attractive American journalist keen on writing Maugham's biography turns to Bernie for assistance in gaining access to him. The plot takes a surprising turn, but most compelling are the occasional flashbacks in which Kerr's hero tries to do the right thing while serving as a cop under the Nazi regime. Author tour.
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A real page turner that hooks you from the very start
Kerr is a wonderful story teller and weaves fact with fiction effortlessly. His research is impeccable and in Bernie Gunther he has the greatest fictional detective in history, in my opinion.