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Criminal negligence

A best-selling author in his day, Gerald Kersh’s reputation appears secure, thanks to reprints and a proposed new biography

28 July, 2017 — By Dan Carrier

Gerald Kersh. PHOTO: SIMON RICHARD BLOOM

GERALD Kersh wrote the biggest selling book in the UK during the Second World War. His newspaper columns, read by millions, helped win it, while his novels offer the contemporary reader an insight into our city in the mid-20th century – and yet his name is known only to a small number of dedicated enthusiasts.

This summer, Kersh’s 1947 novel Prelude to a Certain Midnight – a story about the murder of a child in Soho – is re-issued by London Books, and with a new biography also in the offing, the writer’s legacy could be due the recognition he deserves.

Author Paul Duncan has written the foreword to the book – and told the Review how he has spent two decades tracking down Kersh’s life story.

Despite success that included co-writing an Oscar-winning documentary and breaking the huge American magazine short story market, Kersh’s career was beset by a literary snobbery that meant the topics he chose did not always win him critical respect. His books had fallen out of print, his huge number of influential articles forgotten.

Paul came across Kersh when he was editing the magazine Crime Time in the 1980s.

Kersh’s Prelude to a Certain Midnight

“I read an entry in the St James Mystery Compendium and picked up his novel, Prelude to a Certain Midnight, and thought it was fantastic,” he says. “I saw him take different genres and forms of crime and mystery fiction, put them together and turn them on their head. I wanted very much to find out more about him.”

This started a true-life detective trail.

“I soon found that nobody knew much about Kersh,” says Paul. “I created a paper trial relating to him and found others who were as obsessed by his work as I was.”

Kersh had died in 1968 and Paul’s quest took him to up state New York, where he found Kersh’s third wife, Florence.

The stories began to tumble out – and seemed so far-fetched, Paul was unsure whether he could trust her memory.

“She told me extraordinary things – many could not be true, I thought – but I discovered many were,” he recalls.

One tale was the story behind one of his novels that happened to be based on a real event in Florence’s life. She had worked for a Philadelphia newspaper as a female reporter – a rarity then – and on her first day secured a huge scoop by tracking down the city’s mobster kingpin and securing an interview – all after being sent off on a wild goose chase by male colleagues trying to wind her up. “I thought it was untrue – until I found copies of the piece. It became his novel, A Short Day in Hell,” adds Paul.

Kersh was born in Teddington in 1911 and grew up in a large Jewish family.

“His father was a tailor,” says Paul. “He grew up telling stories and getting up to no good.”

Night and the City, starring Richard Widmark and Gene Tierney

He won a scholarship to Regent Street Polytechnic and dreamed of being a writer.

“While learning how to write, Kersh earned a living as a cinema manager, bodyguard, debt collector, fish-and-chip cook, travelling salesman (“selling everything from sausages to electric lights”), French teacher and all-in wrestler,” says Paul.

But life was tough.

“There were nights where Kersh would sneak into Regent’s Park to sleep,” says Paul.

A key moment came when he travelled to France, aged 18, and learnt the language. This was a huge influence on his writing: he read Zola, Balzac and Hugo.

“They were naturalist writers,” says Paul. “They wrote about the world as it was, they wrote about all levels of society based on observation and he was able to read them in their original French.

“Kersh was a renowned raconteur, but he was also a very good listener – he loved to hear stories. His skill came from human observation, and in this way is similar to the French writers he loved.”

And London of the 30s provided a fertile ground for copy. He wrote articles and short stories for Fleet Street, which would later be published as a collection, I Got References (Michael Joseph 1939).

Paul Duncan. PHOTO: JOSEF T-D

His work was also like an English version of the American hardboiled writers who were so popular.

“He loved Soho, loved jazz clubs, cafe culture,” adds Paul. “He’d go to the milk bar in Coventry Street and stay up all night writing and listening.”

At the start of the Second World War he became a Coldstream Guard, but a knee injured in the Blitz cut short his time on active service. Instead, his skill as a wordsmith contributed to the allied cause. He started a column for the Daily Herald, The Private Life of a Private, providing an authentic voice of life in the army.

He was transferred to the Army Information Unit and the Film Unit and in 1941 gave a voice to the men serving in his book, They Died With Their Boots Clean, which was the UK’s biggest seller during the war years.

“He showed what it was like to be a soldier, to be trained to go to war,” says Paul. “He wrote extensively for newspapers such as The People – which had a circulation of five million – under the name Piers England.”

Kersh suffered from poor health from 1950 onwards, and, despite his prodigious output, was often broke.

His books Night and the City and The Angel and the Cuckoo offer insights into London in the mid-20th century. Prelude to a Certain Midnight is a classic of its type. Brilliantly crafted, these novels have been rescued from being the secret of dedicated Kersh fans who have hunted down thumbed copies in second-hand book shops to rightfully handsome hardbacks from London Books.

Prelude To A Certain Midnight. By Gerald Kersh. With an introduction by Paul Duncan. London Books Classics, £11.99

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