Until recently, Night and the City was only known to me as a classic film noir set in London and starring Richard Widmark – one of the very best of that genre. I’ll return to the film version in a future blog. There is a later film version starring Robert De Niro, where the story is relocated to New York. I haven’t seen it so can’t comment, though I know a lot of people feel it to be inferior to the Widmark version.
I had never read the novel by Gerald Kersh, though it’s well known that the screenwriter of the Widmark film abandoned most of the plot, lots of the characters, and that the film company more or less paid Kersh for the evocative title.
There is a splendid edition of the book now published by London Books with an excellent, atmospheric and very informative introduction by John King. I really recommend that this is the edition that you seek out – not least because it is beautifully produced.
It is one of the finest novels about London, and in particularly the Soho district in the 1930s I have ever read. It is not a crime novel per se, though many of the characters operate on the fringes of the underworld. It is a lowlife novel, with characters whose lives are hopeless and tragic. The anti-hero Harry Fabian is one of life’s losers. A cockney who wants to get on, who pretends very often to be an American, with a bad imitation of the accent, on the grounds that it might impress others. Harry is a ponce (a pimp in modern parlance), a blackmailer, an entrepreneur of the crooked Soho world, who simply cannot compete with real existence in that great depression of the 1930s – the book is set in the period immediately before the coronation of King George VI.
Harry tries to get on, but every enterprise seems doomed to failure. He takes up one thing after another, but fails because he gets bored too easily and can’t persist with anything. He seems destined for a tragic end and, in a way, gets one. But not the end you might expect.
Every aspect of lowlife Soho is covered. Characters run dubious night-clubs, women are lured into working as hostesses and worse just in order to survive. There is a wonderful demonstration of the growth of fixed all-in wrestling matches at the time, and one of the best fight scenes in literature.
But this is almost, as we would say today, a docudrama. Kersh is clearly writing from his own great personal knowledge of this world, with the same vividness for social observation that you get in the writings of George Orwell and Patrick Hamilton.
Night and the City is not an easy read. It shows aspects of London life that we all know are there, but try not to think about, with an array of characters that make Kersh a kind of twentieth-century Dickens – Nosseros, the night-club owner, Helen the hostess, Zoe and Vi, working girls with a doubtful future, Bert the Costermonger, who is an object lesson on how to survive on the right side of the law, the Black Strangler, a wrestler with an uncertain temper.
If you ever want to know what lowlife London was really like in the 1930s then Night and the City is the book to read. I know Soho quite well. There are aspects of Kersh’s depiction that are still valid today.
I hadn’t discovered Gerald Kersh until I read Night and the City. Now I shall seek out more of his work. His own life was fascinating, as you’ll see if you look him up online. The characters and settings of this novel could never have been “mugged up” – only someone with first-hand knowledge could have produced a literary work of such distinction.
Night and the City by Gerald Kersh, with an introduction by John King. Published by London Books.