She wanted to do something to somebody. She felt a need for a hushed Old Bailey, a Black Cap, a Sentence, a rope snapping taut and a gratified crowd outside grey walls half-cheering while a man in uniform pasted up a bit of paper. She was out for blood.
Prelude to a Certain Midnight is a like a core sample taken through inter-war Soho. According to the back of my Penguin edition, Gerald Kersh worked as a ‘travelling salesman, all-in-wrestler, night-club proprietor, cinema manager, banker’s assistant, manual labourer, bodyguard, bookmaker’s clerk, debt collector, and barman’. Assuming that’s all true, he presumably saw a lot of London’s demi-monde, and they’re all here: slum-dwellers and aristos slumming it, artists, writers, eccentrics, drinkers and addicts, retired boxers, pork butchers, sado-masochists – and one child murderer.
Although it begins in 1947, Prelude is largely set in the early 1930s. Asta Thundersley is a chronically eccentric (but, fortunately, for her very rich) do-gooder who lives on the boundaries of the Bohemian community which gathers at the Bar Bacchus.
Imagine a retired middle-weight boxer, turned gentleman farmer, impersonating his aunt; dressed in a coat and skirt.
Asta has become obsessed with finding the man who raped and murdered a Jewish child and left her body in a derelict house.
Asta has a heart of gold, enough righteous anger to fuel her blundering search, and no faith in the police force or their techniques. With little idea on how to proceed beyond considering the men she knows one-by-one, she hits upon the idea of inviting them all to a house party in order to get them drunk enough to confess.
Meanwhile the killer carries on with his life, smugly confident in his invulnerability, until drink loosens his tongue…
Kersh has a hypnotic style which draws you in and carries you from character to character as Asta tries to find the killer. He writes with a fine scorn for his subjects, a set of paper-thin, self-obsessed idiots who combine together to create the perfect environment for someone to kill a child.
The Bohemian is second-cousin to the spiv: he has a similar light-hearted amorality, a similar slack-mouthed here-to-day-gone-to-morrow easygoingness […] a similar blind detestation of Law and order and established things.
Anything goes – which has enabled the killer to proceed step-by-step on the road to murder.
Prelude is written with a grim black humour, a forensic insight into the psychology of every kind of oxygen-thief Kersh could conjure up, and an ultimately bleak view of human affairs on ‘the fly-blown face of the exhausted earth’. It’s not going to cheer you up, but it is a fascinating book.
Prelude to a Certain Midnight
First published in the UK by Heinemann, 1947
This edition Penguin Books, 1953
Source: Past Offences library
Final destination: A keeper
His Futile Preoccupations: Some passages, from the mind of the murderer, made very gruesome reading–not so much for the details, but for the pure callousness. Prelude to Midnightargues very effectively that the residues of a crime never leave the minds and the lives of those involved. Everyone connected to the crime is haunted by the event in one way or another. Keeping in mind that the murder is ten years old when the novel opens, Kersh shows that the horror remains and even spreads through the pages to the reader. If Kersh wanted to convince us that he recreated a time, an atmosphere and a killing, then he certainly succeeded.