“But the sort of men that do jobs like this Sabbatani job, they’re lone wolves.”
I’d been meaning to read Prelude to a Certain Midnight since reading the fantastic Night and the City from the same author, Gerald Kersh. You can read Night and the City and know that this novel was meant to be made into one of the all-time great noir films. Reading Prelude to a Certain Midnight renders a completely different result–the book, its moody, sordid setting, the characters on the fringes of society, and the crime under examination–the rape and murder of a ten-year-old-girl, all get under your skin, and it’s not a particularly pleasant experience.
The book opens by discussing a East-End London pub known as Bar Bacchus–an establishment that has endured a fall from popularity. “For twenty-five years it was one of the three most popular meeting-places in London,” but now it’s mostly empty, and the old regulars claim that the atmosphere of the place changed. Only one of the old crowd still haunts the premises–Amy Dory known as “Catchy” hangs out there, and Kersh gives us pages of description of this piece of human wreckage.
But the Bar Bacchus lost its soul and Catchy lost her body. If you had known her then and could see her now you would see what I mean when I say that she has gone through the years like a woman dragged backwards through a thicket hedge. Time has made a sad mess of her–time and trouble. She had had trouble, she will tell you a few minutes after meeting you. Those bright brown eyes that used to be so steady and candid against the baby-blue whites may now be likened to a couple of cockroaches desperately swimming in two saucers of boiled rhubarb. her magnificent hair has acquired a coarse texture. There is something Bohemian about it: it will not lie down; it resists the comb: it is hair in revolt. She is too tired, now, to fight against it.
After a couple of pages of this sort of thing, Kersh began to seem a little harsh to this character, but he’s just paving the way for the book’s central theme–the lasting impression of an unsolved crime that occurred ten years earlier.
Catchy rents a room (but hardly ever pays rent) to Mrs. Sabbatani, the mother of the murdered girl, Sonia. Mr. Sabbatani, a local tailor, died not long after his daughter’s murder, and while Catchy appears to avoid Mrs. Sabbatani (perhaps due to the issue of past rent), she seems to respect her landlady. Mrs. Sabbatani, who has a good, generous heart, won’t throw Catchy out because Sonia liked her.
Then the tale travels back ten years, and Sonia’s murder, still fresh, is unsolved, yet there’s hope that the person responsible will be caught. Little Sonia left school one afternoon in the middle of thick fog and was later found raped and strangled in the cellar of a condemned slum. Although Detective Turpin is on the case, there are few clues–except that Sonia said she was meeting ‘a friend’ of her father who was “going to show her a secret.” This seems to indicate that the killer was a local man–possibly one of Sam Sabbatani’s many customers.
The cusp of the story hinges on the actions of independently wealthy do-gooder, Asta Thundersley, aka the Battleaxe: a “fuss pot, a busybody, with a finger in every charitable pie; a maiden lady of diabolical energy.” Asta is always on the rampage for one cause or another, and if she asks for help in her quest for social justice, and is refused, then the person who declines, or hesitates, “becomes her enemy, in which case his life will be made a burden to him.” People who stumble into Asta’s path either love her or hate her–there’s no in-between. So while she often butts heads with various figures in authority, she also becomes the champion of the downtrodden. But Asta isn’t all bluster and noise; she puts her money where her mouth is. So for example she employs a broken down fighter, “The Tiger Fitzpatrick” as her butler, and her gruesomely made-up housekeeper is Mrs Kipling: “who had, in her day, danced suggestive dances and sung lewd songs in East End music-halls.”
Asta’s latest cause becomes the quest to find Sonia’s killer….
While the stain of this hideous crime contaminates everyone involved, there’s also the sensation that the crime was spawned by the unhealthy atmosphere of the area. In a very creepy section, Asta, with lurid fascination, begins poking around the crime scene:
Near the kitchen there was an ancient wash-house, with a copper boiler built in a round cylinder of half-rotten brick that had once been whitewashed, and a window as big as a pocket handkerchief that was not designed to open. The smell of five generations of filthy linen hung in the thick grey air of the wash-house. As Asta hurried out of it she saw an archway. It was the opening of a malodorous little vault, the roof of which was the pavement of the street. Looking up, she saw the rusty under-surface of the lid of the coal-hole. There was coal dust under her feet; and now her feet were as sensitive as teeth-she walked on her toes. In the coal-cellar there was a crushed tea chest of peeling plywood, a few shovelfuls of wet coal dust, and a demolished leather sofa.
This was the love nest of the undiscovered murderer. Here the beautiful child Sonia Sabbatani had been ravished and found dead, with her head in a puddle, some lengths of knotted string about her wrists; gagged with abominable rags.
As the police surgeon lifted Sonia, one of the fat grey insects had run out of her ears.
Frustrated about the lack of progress made in the murder investigation, Asta questions (bludgeons) the unflappable Detective Turpin about the case:
“Ask yourself, Miss Thundersley,” said Turpin, “if it’s as easy for us as you seem to think. As you say, sex is a motive–beastliness as you said just now, and quite right too. Well now, you see, almost anybody might commit a crime like that. Respectable fathers of families have been known to, er, commit certain offences against children. People you’d never suspect are always strangling ladies of easy virtue with silk stockings, for instance. This sort of murderer is the hardest sort of murderer to lay your hands on, because he’s not a habitual criminal. He is not known to the police. A burglar, or a forger, or a confidence trickster–he leaves, as you might say, his autograph on his work.”
Some passages, from the mind of the murderer, made very gruesome reading–not so much for the details, but for the pure callousness. Prelude to Midnight argues very effectively that the residues of a crime never leave the minds and the lives of those involved. Everyone connected to the crime is haunted by the event in one way or another. Keeping in mind that the murder is ten years old when the novel opens, Kersh shows that the horror remains and even spreads through the pages to the reader. If Kersh wanted to convince us that he recreated a time, an atmosphere and a killing, then he certainly succeeded.
Finally, a note on my edition from Blackmask. I’ve heard a lot of complaints about Blaskmask books, but this publisher puts books in the hands of its readers, so I can’t complain. There were just a couple of typos, and one completely out of place sentence, but that was it.