:: Article

Men and Women Who Will Not Grow Up

By Anna Aslanyan.

Gerald Kersh, Prelude to a Certain Midnight (London Books, 2017)

Prelude to a Certain Midnight by Gerald Kersh, first published in 1947, is the latest title in London Books Classics, a series designed to bring forgotten authors back into print. Set in 1930s London, the novel centres on the rape and murder of a schoolgirl. The character leading the police investigation, Detective Inspector Turpin, often sounds like a contemporary cop: for instance, when referring to sex offenders as ‘lone wolves’ who find themselves ‘willing victims’ to abuse. While the former term has been much used over the past months, the latter is unlikely to go down well in the current climate. Turpin might draw criticism similar to that aimed at Judge Lindsey Kushner, who recently warned women about the risk of getting drunk.

‘Frantic moves within an ever-tighter urban labyrinth’ is Iain Sinclair’s take on pre- and early post-war London novels with their cinematic qualities. An admirer of London Books, Sinclair himself has done much to resurrect neglected authors. While some are grateful to him for Kersh, Alexander Baron and Roland Camberton, to mention just a few, others upbraid him for ignoring women in what he calls his ‘documentary-fiction’. The disappointed will be pleased to find a proliferation of female characters in Prelude. Although a girl known as Catchy is perhaps not the role model of our times, Asta Thundersley – nicknamed Battleaxe, she ‘resembles a man, a man to be reckoned with’ – embodies the spirit of dissent. Then there’s Cigarette, a rebel who loves a cheating burglar and works only when her mother stops her allowance, but still, ‘ideologically, she was a feminist.’ And the murdered child, Sonia Sabbatani, was one of those ‘high-spirited girls’ that Asta had once been.

Kersh’s male characters, by contrast, are rather two-dimensional. Mr Scripture, ‘a nobody, indescribable’, is overshadowed by his wife. Milton Catt, a ‘physical culturist’ married to a generous widow thirty years his senior, collects ‘photographs of himself illustrating the development of his muscles’. Other men, with the exception of Turpin, also fail to impress, but when women fall for them it’s easy to imagine the same scenario unfolding today. ‘House-trained, obedient, born to be henpecked’ wouldn’t make a great Soulmates profile, and yet that’s how the ideal husband is still envisaged sometimes.

When Asta throws a party in the hope of exposing Sonia’s murderer, her sister Tot, a lady of independent means and romantic ideas, is scanning the male guests as potential partners. What she is interested in is not sex but money – her own, which she would happily give to someone worthy and in need of motherly support. The figure she has in mind, despite being irresistible, is ‘only a man…will-less, maculate, hungry for forgiveness’.

Those familiar with Kersh’s other novels – Night and the City and The Angel and the Cuckoo were reissued by London Books in the last decade – will recognise his vivid style. ‘The blackboard was going grey’ in a run-down classroom; a house ‘condemned. Unfit frooman ‘abitation’ features a water closet ‘stuffed with used newsprint like the head of a plagiarist’.

Kersh knew a thing or two about newsprint. Having made his name as a reporter during WWII, in January 1945 he covered the trial of Karl Hulten and Elizabeth Jones, who murdered George Edward Heath, ‘The Man with the Cleft Chin’. In his article ‘Pity These Modern Peter Pans’, he blames people’s immaturity for violent crimes: ‘Retarded adolescence is the disease of the age. The false ideals of men and women who will not grow up pollute our civilisation.’ Note the all-inclusive formula: men and women are equally capable of perpetrating evil, especially when impressionable or stupid enough to fall under the spell of ‘crime novelettes’. To satirise the genre, Kersh introduces a couple of amateur sleuths into his own narrative and makes the murderer a hack writing a serial titled Ironskin Obst! under the pseudonym Dashwood Steel.

The novel’s topography is unmistakably London, though it’s difficult to pin down. The Bacchus Bar where the bohemian characters gather is reminiscent of Soho; the nearby school less so. There are echoes of Peter Ackroyd’s theory that holds the place itself, with its demands for sacrificial offerings, responsible for the crimes it attracts. Kersh, however, puts emphasis on ‘a certain midnight’ rather than the place, estimating the balance of probabilities thus: ‘God, as a gentleman, tries to think well of the watchful enemy, but Evil knows all the tricks.’

When Asta’s guests talk about the tragedy, one of them reminds the company that Hitler, who has been in power for over two years, has killed thousands and thousands of Jewish girls. A moral argument ensues: ‘Dropping a bomb is one thing. Getting hold of someone by the throat and choking them…is another thing.’ Meanwhile, the murderer dreams of future killings and of becoming ‘a Leader, a Liberator’ of men. He is in turns proud of his achievement and sorry for himself, shifting his guilt onto a certain femme fatale: ‘She made me feel that my manhood depended on my power to hurt.’ 

Yes, the willing victim happens to be a woman, just as the sex maniac happens to be a man, but neither’s behaviour appears to be defined by their gender. Likewise, Tot lets the murderer get away through sheer inertia and indifference. ‘I wish I was a man: I’d be a detective,’ Asta says; that she proves useless at solving the crime has nothing to do with her being (technically) a woman. The character who happens to be the most forward-thinking of all is Turpin. ‘Speak to me as it might be man to man,’ he says to Cigarette over a drink. When an impressionable young lady, who happens to find the murderer’s dreamy looks ‘interesting’, asks Turpin if there are women detectives, he replies, ‘I suppose so’ and then suggests, quite reasonably: ‘I should make enquiries if I were you.’

Anna Aslanyan is a translator and journalist living in London. She regularly contributes to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and writes for the TLS and a number of online publications. Anna’s translations into Russian include works of fiction by Tom McCarthy, Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, Mavis Gallant, and Zadie Smith.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, July 25th, 2017.