|THE NEW REVIEW|
Book detail on the London Books website
New imprint London Books plans to reprint a number of ‘lost’ London
novels from the last century, and as one of the first, ‘Night and the
City’ gives a fair idea of what they are about and what they‘re
trying to achieve. There’s an interesting little website at London-books.co.
uk which is worth a look too.
Kersh’s novel is a 1930’s noir effort set mainly in the dives and clip-joints of Soho. It’s a predictable low-life morality tale, seen through the exploits of small time racketeer Harry Fabians and his inevitable downfall. But heavily plotted as it is, that doesn’t really seem to be the point.
This is most definitely a London book. A relic of place and time which clearly appealed to the publishers. Kersh provides the kind of heavily detailed, descriptive narration which you don’t find too often these days, and for most of the book it works. Much like the Paris of ‘Down and out in…’, the novel manages to create a convincing sense of between the wars London which is pretty consistent and alive.
It’s obvious that Kersh knew the world he was writing about and it’s also obvious that he was fascinated by it. His prose can be racy enough, and there are plenty of over-the-top but believable swindlers, hookers and dupes ducking and diving their way throughout. The result is that, as a straightforward pulp thriller, it works well, and will probably appeal to genuine Essex wido’s as much as to Guardian readers and historians.
It also works as an evocation of a time and place which has long since disappeared, carrying all sorts of political and social comment which looks to be part of the appeal for London co-publisher John King (King also provides the introduction). If you’ve ever seen ‘The Football Factory’ you’ll have an idea of the where he's coming from.
But there’s more to ‘Night and the City’ than that. And it’s at this point that it's difficult to decide whether it really works or not. As I said, Kersh is clearly close to the subject matter, but at times he takes the role of omniscient narrator and creates a perspective shift which threatens to throw the whole book off kilter. At strategic points he steams in to give unprompted lectures on alcoholism, feminine hygiene (!), love and any number of topics. It’s like getting a story from the pub expert - forever butting in to tell you WHY it all happened like that. And there’s no real need for Kersh to bother. The characterisation is good enough to speak for itself, but he seems so enthralled that at times he can’t help but jump in all guns blazing.
Fortunately, though, it doesn’t result in complete disaster. The author seems to be quite a bizarre character himself and actually manages to slide in amongst the others fairly successfully. No doubt this wasn’t what he intended, but for me that’s the way it works. And it just about does. There are also a couple of ‘interludes’ which are basically chapters separate from the main plot and intended ( I think) to act as allegories. These don’t add anything to the novel and are just too heavy handed to take seriously. I suppose it’s a sign of the times that these attempts to manipulate the reader are the least satisfying aspects of the book and feel so obviously out of place. But this is still a good read. Good enough to be filmed twice - though I haven’t seen either.
High point? The frantic build to the conclusion - a fucked up last poker hand while the world closes in around Fabian - has the same kind of claustrophobic intensity which made ‘Brighton Rock’ such a great read. It manages to be genuinely uncomfortable, because by that point the characters are real enough to keep you involved. Away from the attempts at showboating, characterisation is Kersh’s real skill, and it’s what makes his writing engaging. And it might just be coincidence, but the jacket design looks to be a reference to the Faber issue of ‘Brighton Rock’ from a Few years back, which would make a lot of sense.
I'm pleased to see that London Books are going to be releasing more of this stuff (James Curtis and Alan Sillitoe are next on the list) as well as new fiction from King and others. This reprint certainly suggests that fans of the beats, noir, crime or anyone with even a passing interest in 20th century realism should keep a close eye on them.
Reproduced with permission
Stuart Blackwood is 30 (odd), was born in Newarthill and lives in Glasgow. He supports Motherwell FC, has an MA in Economics and Philosophy and likes William Bell (the singer), Bukowski & Fante, Eric Arthur Blair, Negativeland, Eric Hobsbawm, politics, philosophy and ambiguity. He dislikes Alan Bloom and Francis Fukuyama, U2, categorization and Violence.
|NIGHT AND THE CITY
(London Books 2007)
Reviewed by Stuart Blackwood
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