BOOKS / Off the Shelf: Harry turns a fast buck in Soho: The cult of the London novel has brought Gerald Kersh out of obscurity, writes Robert Webb (CORRECTED)

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The Independent Culture

DURING THAT peculiarly English nouvelle noir period of writing in the Thirties and Forties, best represented now by classics like Hamilton's Hangover Square and Greene's Brighton Rock, Gerald Kersh was laying the groundwork for some of the finest adventures in modern fiction. Nightclub bouncer, sausage salesman, cinema manager, all-in wrestler and sometime journalist, Gerald Kersh was also the author of 23 novels and a bonfire of short stories. Many were brilliantly written, wonderfully evocative; all are now virtually forgotten.

The London novels, which include Night and the City, Fowler's End and Prelude to a Certain Midnight are classic Kersh: wickedly humorous glimpses of London low-life - in the lodging house, the gin palace, at the end of the bus route. Like Dickens and Gissing before him, Gerald Kersh's books penetrate the shady side of the street, exposing his frightening and fabulous characters who, as Simon Raven put it, 'live in a world where it is always necessary, for good or ill, to act'.

If Gerald Kersh is remembered at all, it is for Night and the City, published in 1938; a noctuary of events in a mythic Soho underworld that is both menacing and nostalgic. In it, Harry Fabian, an avaricious ponce committed to deception and the distrust of all around him, embarks on a trail of extortion, double-dealing and bad manners. Fabian's big idea - to become a wrestling promoter as a way of turning a fast buck - essentially entails cheating a cast of hapless, but seductive characters: the Arthur Daley-like Figler, worried nightclub owner Phil Nosseross, Phil's wife Helen and an assortment of chancers, prostitutes and blackmail victims.

The book helped establish the young Gerald Kersh, although probably not financially. His brother Cyril recalls that 'Gerald wrote, drank and earned a few quid here and there (but not much from his books)'. In 1939, probably to escape his creditors, he volunteered for the Coldstream Guards. Hollywood bought Night and the City in 1945 for dollars 40,000, eventually casting Richard Widmark in the lead and making a film that bore scant resemblance to the original story. Kersh was amused: 'All they're using is the title . . . At dollars 10,000 a word this makes me the world's most highly paid writer.'

Nevertheless, Kersh's career was dogged by money problems and poor health. He settled in the United States in 1955, continuing to write, living in small towns in New York state where he could 'spot a creditor at 10 miles'. Finally, overcome by cancer, he died in 1968 aged 57.

Perhaps his time has come round again: Night and the City has been reissued in paperback and remade on celluloid, the action transferring to New York and starring Robert De Niro and Jessica Lange. The cult of the London novel, helped by the success of Michael Moorcock and Martin Amis, has perhaps paved the way for the rediscovery of one of the most famously forgotten writers of the last 25 years.

'Night and the City' by Gerald Kersh is published by Brainiac Books, pounds 5.99. The film is released on 12 February.