It is 1956 on the French Riviera. A world-weary Bernie Gunther is working as concierge at the Grand Hotel, St Jean Cap Ferrat, living under a false name. The Riviera retains its louche glamour even in these gloomy post-war years – a sunny place for shady people. Bernie plays bridge to stave off boredom and misses his old detective life. Then his past walks through the door in the shape of Harold Hennig, a former captain in the Nazi security service. Bernie never forgets a face, especially when it belongs to a mass murderer who, in 1945, was responsible for the deaths of thousands, among them a woman Bernie loved. Since the war, Hennig has enjoyed 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 Mauresque, where Maugham tells him of a compromising photograph that reveals a lot more about Maugham’s life than his notorious sexuality. Taken in 1937, it shows 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.