GERALD KERSH – Prelude to a Certain Midnight. Heinemann, UK, hardcover, 1947. Doubleday, US, hardcover, 1947. Reprint editions include: Lion #98, paperback, 1952. Dover, US, paperback, 1983.

   Some books defy easy classification. Anything by Gerald Kersh defies easy classification. If you are an American you may know him for his short stories, for his tales of the impossible con man Karmesin, or Fleet Street editor Bo Raymond, or maybe his collections of distinctly off beat tales, On An Odd Note. You might know him for his best known American novel, Night and the City, an icon of noir film in two different adaptations.

   But suffice it to say. you don’t really know Kersh if you haven’t read books like Fowler’s End, The Secret Masters, or Prelude to a Certain Midnight.

    Prelude is the story of a murderer, but it isn’t the story of a suspenseful police hunt or a courageous individual who digs into the truth.

   It is as much the story of the death of a small segment of a community as of an innocent child, and the death of what was a very different England and Europe in the years before the war. “It is all the same sort of thing. Maidanek, Belsen, Auschwitz, Sonia Sabbatani… The difference is only a matter of scale and legality.”

   It is a novel about the effect such a killer has on a community, on the patrons of a pub, a microcosm, and how destructive such violence is on everyone touched by it. It is about what turns men from sick to murderer what pushes a certain kind of weakling to believe he is a superman.

   The atmosphere of a place is the soul of that place, and when it departs the place dies. One may make equations: A New Manager, plus the New Managers Friends, minus certain Old Familiar Faces, plus a Strange Barman, plus the Tension that goes with Unfamiliar Voices, minus Intimacy, equals a Change of Atmosphere. But this is not satisfactory. One might as well describe an oppressive quiet in terms of decibels, or explain a grief in cubic centimeters of salt tears. One might as well expect an oceanographer to draw up the loneliness and the darkness of the Mindanao Deep on a plumb line.

   The Bar Bacchus died. The virtue went out of it. Its soul drifted away so that now, although nothing about the place has visibly changed, it is nothing but a shell that once enclosed a character and an individual heartbeat.

   How the Bacchus lost its soul, its virtue, is told in terms of its patrons; of Asta Thunderley, a force of life who sees the indifference of police when a child dies in a poor neighborhood in Pre War London, and chooses to organize a hunt for the killer among the patrons of the pub; of Tobit Osbert, the gentle man loved by children who harbors a dark secret and loves to see pain; Sam Sabbatani the tailor whose life is destroyed by the murder of his daughter; of Tiger Fitzpatrick Asta Thunderley’s ex prizefighter butler; Conger the barman; Ember the novelist; of Thea Olivia “Tot” who knows Osbert is the killer but no one will listen; and of Amy “Catchy” Dory, the poor soul who was once beautiful who “The weaker you were, the more submissive she became. The more foolish and indecisive you were, the more she looked up to you…” Catchy, who more than Tobit Osbert is the monster at the center of the novel

   Kersh captures all these people with perfect phrasing and well tuned voices.

   Of Catchy: She knew how to make people happy when she was beautiful, and when the Bar Bacchus was a place with an atmosphere.

   Of Sabbatani who hid his great heart behind a scowl: The, heart of Sabbatani chuckled in quiet triumph. His head growled impotently. His face scowled.

   Of the petty banality of the murderer: He had sent his suit to be cleaned by Sam Sabbatani, who gave his dyeing and cleaning to the great Goldberg Dye Works, which takes in half the dirty clothes in London every morning at nine o’clock. The firm of Goldberg makes a specialty of what they call “mourning orders” and will dye anything funereally black within twenty-four hours.

   Tobit Osbert found a certain refined pleasure in the contemplation of the fact that Sam Sabbatani, still red-eyed and thunderstruck with grief, was washing away evidence which might possibly have convicted the murderer of his daughter for three and sixpence—on the slate, at that.

   Colorful a lot as the characters in the novel are it is their mere humanity that again and again keeps you turning pages in the novel. Osbert the child murderer beloved by his nieces who he takes to the circus or the shooting gallery, Astra who tries disastrously to play Miss Marple even down to a gathering of the suspects at her dinner table, Thea who must live with the knowledge Osbert is the murderer and can do nothing about it.

   Kersh offers no easy answers. Only his wit and command of style save this from being a depressing book and instead create a kind of black Ealing comedy atmosphere as if Passport to Pimlico had been written by Robert Bloch.

   And there is savagery here too, Kersh’s anger at the lot of these people, at their weaknesses and strengths, at the indifference toward small “unimportant” lives, and the ways dark truth’s hidden behind beauty can create monsters of little frightened men.

   Once read, Prelude will stay with you, maybe even if you wish at times it would not. It is not really a mystery, it’s far too wise and human simply to be noir (though ironically it is one of the great noir novels), its heart too great, its anger too visceral.

   Reading this you may get the wrong idea about Kersh and the idea he writes as a misogynist. He does not. His portrait of Catchy particularly is a full one, and only after he has laid out his carefully presented case against her does his tone towards her change from sympathetic to accusatory.

   I can only say I wish they had filmed this. What a role Catchy would be for some lucky actress. She is no femme fatale or spider luring men to their doom, but her love is just as destructive because of where it comes from. She is victim, too willing to be one, and monster, too blind to see what she creates out of “love.”

   Blanche Du Bois has nothing on Catchy.

   You may disagree about the degree of her guilt, but I think her comeuppance from Astra Thunderley will still be the cathartic moment Kersh means.

   I don’t usually quote last lines in reviews, but this one sums up much of what you will find in Prelude, and sums up the somewhat shopworn Catchy and the harm her kind can do neatly.

   …and about her there clings, always, an atmosphere of guilt, of maudlin grief, stale liquor, and decay that makes you long for a good high wind to blow her and her kind from the face of the earth, the flyblown face of the exhausted earth.