Tag Archives: British noir fiction

Night and the City by Gerald Kersh (1938)

“How does that Fabian fellow live, then?”

“On show. He’d go without food to buy you a cigar for three shillings. Actually, he lives on a woman. He thinks nobody knows. Everybody knows. And he’s always running, and hurrying….He works harder doing nothing than I do, getting my living.”

The film Night and the City is one of my  favourite noirs. Max reviewed the book Night and the City just over a year ago, and I knew I had to read it. As soon as I finished it, I picked it back up & reread it. That should give you an idea of how much I enjoyed it, but it goes beyond enjoyment into the realm of fascination. I’m going to add that the film (actually I can think of two versions) bears only a marginal resemblance to the book. Director Jules Dassin, a former member of the communist party, was sent to Britain to make the film in a vain attempt to avoid Hollywood blacklisting, and he was advised at the time by studio executive Zanuck that this would probably be the last film he would be able to make for Hollywood. Dassin never had time to read the book before making the film. Author Gerald Kersh (1911-1968) was, apparently angry about the Jules Dassin film adaptation, but he did quip that he was the highest paid writer as he was paid 40,000 pounds for the rights to the book, and that translated, he argued, to 10,000 per word for the title.

It’s London, Coronation year, 1937. Harry Fabian, a London pimp  with a shady connection to the white slave trade, lives off prostitute Zoë. Fabian is a real piece of work. While the film shows Harry Fabian as a not-entirely-unsympathetic American (played with extraordinary skill by Richard Widmark), Kersh’s Fabian is a cheap, nasty cockney who is so imbued with American gangster lore, that he sports a fake American accent, dresses like an American and pretends he’s an affluent songwriter who has spent most of his life “in the states.” He fools no one except himself and a couple of women who seem to fall for his dubious charms. Fabian is flashy rather than good-looking: 

He was a little man, no more than thirty years old, excessively small-boned and narrow between the shoulders. He had a large head, perched on a neck no thicker than a big man’s forearm, and a great deal of fine hair dressed in the style affected by Johnny Weissmuller. His face was pale; too wide between the ears and too narrow at the chin–a face like a wedge. He looked a man with a good capacity for hatred. His eyes did not match. The left was large and watery, and it continually wavered and blinked with a flickering of whitish lashes; but the right was smaller, harder, steadier, and more of a concentrated blue. Out of this eye he watched you. When he wanted to look dangerous, he simply closed his left eye, slamming the eyelid down like a shutter with an effort that twisted up the whole left-had side of his face. He had a nose like the beak of a sparrow: that, together with his upper lip, which was pressed out of sight, and his lower jaw, which protruded like the head of a chopper, gave him an air of insolence, spite and malevolent calculation. He dressed far too well. There was a quality of savagery about his clothes–hatred in the relentless grip of his collar, malice in the vicious little knot of his tie, defiant acquisitiveness in the skin-tight fit of his coat–his whole body snarled with vindictive triumph over the memory of many dead years of shabbiness.

So we learn about Fabian’s character through his clothes. Is Fabian a dangerous character? No, not really, unless you are weaker, gullible, or happen to believe in him on one level or another. The first part of the book concentrates on establishing Fabian’s character as he gets a haircut and wanders into the London netherworld–wasting time with a penny slot peep show and a rifle range before he goes looking for Figler. Figler is one of the book’s many great characters–a wheeler-dealer who survives by constant business deals that net relatively little but still manage to keep him afloat on a life raft of constant, but meagre, cash flow. Figler will never be a rich man, while Fabian, who has visions of Monte Carlo dancing in his head, longs for the sort of riches that he will never get and the sort of glamorous high-society world that would reject him even if he got his foot in the door.

Fabian has a plan to promote all-in wrestling and wants to open a gym. Lacking the necessary money, he goes to Figler for the bankroll, but Figler, a savvy businessman tells Fabian that he’ll go 50-50 which translates to a 100 pounds a piece. One incredible section of the book details Figler’s frantic, yet determined efforts to stockpile his share of the money by juggling various business transactions. Fabian, however, the man with the big plans, and an active imagination in all the wrong ways, returns home to his goose that lays the golden egg–prostitute Zoë.

It’s a bold move on Kersh’s part to make such a repulsive creature as Harry Fabian, “born in a slum, bred in the gutters, versed in the tortuous geography of the night world and familiar with every rathole in West one and West Central,” his protagonist, and as the book continues Fabian, who is vile from the beginning of the book, sinks to even lower depths by the time the last page is turned. Everything about Fabian is twisted: he has great ideas but lacks the ambition to carry them through. Any effort he puts forth into achieving his plans is executed in the most corrupted fashion, so when he wants 100 pounds to start his gym, he looks no further than Zoë, and it’s through his relationship with Zoë that Fabian is his most repulsive.

While Night and the City explores Fabian’s ambition to become a wrestling promoter, the novel also follows the moral trajectory of two other characters, Helen and Adam. Helen is  an unemployed typist who is unable to pay the rent when she’s persuaded by Vi to begin some dubious employment at The Silver Fox, a sleazy nightclub in a Soho cellar. The Silver Fox is run by 60-year-old Phil Nosseross “hard as nails, slippery as a wagonload of eels; an extraordinarily tough and wily little man who looked as if he had got away with things for which other men would have gone to prison for life.” His Achilles’ heel is his twenty-year-old wife, Mary, a former prostitute “with stupid blue eyes as large as walnuts.” The girls at The Silver Fox are paid on commission with the goal of fleecing the male customers through the purchase of overpriced booze, cigarettes and flowers. If they want to make more money, they can privately prostitute themselves and collect even more. One of the incredible aspects of this incredible book is the dizzying flow of money: some people can hang on to it, and for some people, it’s like holding mercury in their hands. Both Fabian and Vi cannot possess money without spending it. Vi’s money supply swells from a night at The Silver Fox, but disappears by day as her vanity drives her to buy shoes that don’t fit and with any money left over she raids the local Woolworths for useless trinkets. Fabian also has this affliction to blow any money in his pocket. Several marvellous passages follow the frenetic flow of money from those who cannot hold it to those who hoard it. But just as Vi and Fabian cannot allow a pound to rest quietly in their pockets, both Helen and Adam can save. The Silver Fox becomes a crucible for morality–you either leave throughly corrupted or run screaming for fresh air.

Night and the City is an incredibly atmospheric novel replete with unforgettable descriptions of the dives & characters of 30s Soho. There’s Bagrag’s Cellar “a dragnet through which the undercurrent of night life continually filters” and whose customers are “addicts to all known crimes and vices … enslaved by appetites so vile that even textbooks never mention them” and here’s minor character, Anna Siberia:

Imagine the death mask of Julius Caesar, plastered with rouge, and stuck with a pair of eyes as small, as flat, and as bright as newly cut cross sections of .38 caliber bullets; marked with eyebrows that ran together in a straight black bar: and surmounted by a million diabolical black hairs that sprang in a nightmarish cascade up out of her skull, like a dark fountain of accumulated wickedness squeezed out by the pressure of her corsets.

In this brilliantly dark noir, Kersh takes the reader on a sordid journey through the grubby underbelly of 1930s Soho. Fabian, one of the rats who pours out from the sewers, is poised on the brink of self-destruction, but believes he’s about to hit the big time…finally. Are there good people here? Yes, and we get a glimpse of a few as they wallow in the mire–some, like Adam, try to escape, and some, like Helen are just sucked down even further….

25 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Kersh Gerald