Dark, vi­o­lent, brief and bril­liant

David Her­man praises a re­vived Dick­en­sian thriller. Michael Knipe en­joys the mem­oir of an ac­tor and aca­demic Pre­lude to a Cer­tain Mid­night

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - By Ger­ald Kersh

Lon­don Books, £11.99 Re­viewed by David Her­man

FOR­GOT­TEN NOW, Ger­ald Kersh was the big­gest-selling au­thor in Lon­don dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, once hav­ing four books in the top 10 best-seller list. The Amer­i­can edi­tion of his Night and the City sold over a mil­lion copies. Thanks to small in­de­pen­dent pub­lish­ers like Lon­don Books, he is now be­ing re­dis­cov­ered for a new gen­er­a­tion of read­ers.

Born in Lon­don in 1911, Kersh was not his real name. His fa­ther, Hy­man Ker­shen­blatt, came from Poland. Kersh was a kind of an­gli­ci­sa­tion, less Jewish than Ker­shen­blatt but still not quite English. You could say the same about his writ­ing.

Dur­ing the war, Kersh wrote as Piers Eng­land for Bri­tain’s largest selling Sun­day pa­per. And, at first glance, his books could not be more English. They read like Dick­ens: long sen­tences burst­ing with life and vi­tal­ity, un­for­get­table char­ac­ters, vi­o­lence and men­ace never far from the sur­face.

But there’s also some­thing very Jewish about them. The rhythms of speech, the Yid­dish phrases, ref­er­ences to the Holo­caust. Who else in the 1940s was writ­ing like this: “The Cos­sacks are com­ing! They cut Reb Sh­muel’s heart out — they cut the Reb­b­itzin’s breasts off — they tore lit­tle Es­ther Kre­jmer to pieces!”?

Pre­lude to a Cer­tain Mid­night was first pub­lished in 1947. Kersh was at his peak, but, as Paul Dun­can’s fas­ci­nat­ing In­tro­duc­tion makes clear, there is an­other con­text. Kersh had seen the Ger­ald Kersh: out­stand­ing ex­po­nent of 1940s noir con­vey­ing an acute sense of time and place in sim­ple, clear prose first footage from Belsen. As he wrote in the Peo­ple, “Sev­eral mem­bers of my own fam­ily… were taken away in one of the death trains to one of the gas cham­bers.” This sense of ter­ri­ble vi­o­lence haunts the novel, which fol­lows the hunt for a child-mur­derer in Soho.

The novel be­gins in the Bar Bac­chus, a clas­sic Soho drink­ing place, seedy and no longer what it was. But the ac­tion quickly moves to a Jewish widow, Mrs Sab­ba­tini. Ten years ago, her lit­tle girl, So­nia, “had been gagged and bound raped and stran­gled, and thrown into the cel­lar of an empty house.”

Two things are strik­ing about this sen­tence. First, the graphic vi­o­lence and, se­condly, the sim­ple, clear prose. Then, al­most im­me­di­ately, comes the pas­sage about the Cos­sacks. Vi­o­lence erupts into the novel from nowhere, just as it does in ev­ery­day life, just as it did in Europe dur­ing the Holo­caust.

The nar­ra­tive tells the story of the bo­hemi­ans from the Bar Bac­chus. They are a rum lot: some ef­fete, some Jewish refugees and a few lit­er­ary types thrown in. And then there is Asta Thun­der­s­ley, a for­mi­da­ble force of na­ture who is de­ter­mined to track down the killer. Her search ends with an ex­traor­di­nar­ily dark twist.

Kersh had a great gift for cre­at­ing char­ac­ters but, above all, he had a fan­tas­tic turn of phrase. His de­scrip­tion of the “pu­tres­cent corpse of a house”, where the lit­tle girl is killed, is a tour de force. Few Bri­tish nov­els from the 1940s con­vey a bet­ter sense of time and place.

Kersh is a won­der­ful writer and, for new read­ers, this short novel is a fine place to start.

David Her­man is the JC’s chief fic­tion re­viewer

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