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 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.
Prelude to a Certain Midnight is published by London Books (£11.99)
David Herman is the JC’s chief fiction reviewer