THE WORKS of Gerald Kersh fell steeply out of favour and largely out of print after his death in 1968 but London Books are determined to provide him with some kind of rebirth.
This is the third of his many novels they have reprinted and we should be grateful to them for doing so.
Kersh was a broad-minded, imaginative writer and a tough, flamboyant figure who made his home in the bohemian world of London’s Soho of the 1930s and 1940s. His novels, which sold very well during his lifetime, drew on an eccentric cast of characters from that milieu. Many of them, one suspects, came straight out of real life.
In the post-war London setting of Prelude to a Certain Midnight, Kersh introduces us to a large host of eccentric and unstable individuals, loosely brought together through their drinking exploits at a Soho bar and caught up in the swirling wake of a grisly child murder in their neighbourhood.
Sadness seems to hover over all of them, whether they live in a bedsit or a large house, are sober or drunk, employed or otherwise.
The crime adds another layer of silent anguish to the scene, in particular for one of the most poignantly drawn characters. Catchy is a former “good-time” girl whose life has fallen in on itself and who, the reader suspects, has some dark secrets with which the murder is entwined.
Occasionally, it feels as if Kersh spends too much time on his characters rather than developing the plot. But the storyline is of secondary importance to his examination of the notion that most of us are capable of giving succour to depraved acts, given the right circumstances and opportunities.
As the hunt for the child killer flounders and the do-gooding, battleaxe amateur sleuth Asta Thundersley tries to make sense of what has happened, her question: “Who could have been responsible?” returns the answer: “It could have been anyone.”
Quietly, Kersh draws a parallel with the murder of so many innocents by the nazis during the second world war, aided and abetted by the apathy or even downright sympathy of so many.
What this tells us about the human condition is none too edifying but Kersh does shy away from that. His story, set in the immediate aftermath of a conflict that killed many millions, is located in harder and less squeamish times than our own.
From the grave, he is not willing to spare our 21st-century blushes.
London Books says it believes that “the marginalised fiction of the past can be as relevant and exciting as when it was first published.” Here is strong proof of that contention.