(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

It is regrettable that Gerald Kersh’s substantial output of novels and short stories is largely out of print. Most reference sources that include Kersh list only a smattering of his books, many of which were first published in England. Even Book Review Digest, during the years his books appeared (1934-1969), recognized only a modest number of them. Much may be said, however, regarding a few significant titles of works within the mystery and detective genre.

As a writer of whodunits, Kersh was generally not at his best. At home in the seamy pubs and low neighborhoods of London, Kersh often lost himself in detailing sordid slices of life. On occasion his vibrant sense of humor came to the fore; now and then readers saw his rare gift with language—accurate reproduction of vernacular speech, as well as a rich vocabulary and a wide range of appropriate literary allusions. Yet Kersh was not often granted the wonderful concentration of mind that makes for masterful chronicling of crime and sleuthing.

Prelude to a Certain Midnight and Clock Without Hands

Prelude to a Certain Midnight (1947) deals with the violation and murder of an eleven-year-old girl in a vile bohemian area of London. Despite a good bit of character delineation, there is a seeming pointlessness to the story; the killer is never brought to justice. Clock Without Hands (1949) is lacking in literary style, characterization, local color, suspense, and authorial imagination. A ruggedly virile man, separated from his wife and carrying on adulterously with a succession of women, is found murdered in his small rented room. His wife is the prime suspect. The real killer, tracked down by an amateur sleuth, who happens to be a newspaper reporter, is the murder victim’s landlord, a small, meek man trying to take on the strong, masculine qualities of his victim, trying in fact to make the authorities believe that he committed the murder. Yet no one believes this man, the most ordinary of persons, described in the story as “a clock without hands,” and before he can commit another such crime (the intended victim this time is a barmaid to whom the dead tenant had been attracted), he is run over by a truck and killed.

The significant Kershian theme in this flat tale is the strong male pitted against the weak male. Proud of his unusual physical strength, ferocious appearance, and fighting ability, Kersh had a penchant for describing fierce tough-guy types and powerful, aggressive individuals of either sex—as is evident in his novel The Weak and the Strong (1945) and his story about Potiphar’s wife (imaginatively adapted from the biblical account, in Genesis, of Joseph in Egypt), “Ladies or Clothes,” included in the story collection Men Without Bones, and Other Stories (1955).

The Great Wash

With The Great Wash, however, Kersh’s dormant detective-story talents emerged at last. The result was a psychological thriller combining horror, violence, and a redeeming expression of love for one’s fellow humans. Deeply fascinated by the atom bomb developed during World War II, and all the attendant technology, Kersh describes the ultimate global plot for the total domination of humankind. This is a mysterious plan of two British masterminds of an organization of so-called Sciocrats, Kadmeel and Chatterton. Working with certain heads of government throughout the world, they wish to use silicon bombs to blow up the deep underwater mountain barriers in strategic locations, thereby causing enormous tidal waves that will flood the major population centers. Only a select few from each nation with a participating leader will survive, sheltered in some high mountain sanctuary against the time when the cataclysmal floods will recede sufficiently for these chosen ones to come down and develop a new society in accordance with the Sciocrats’ elitist program.

The novel’s two central figures, a newspaper reporter named Albert Kemp and his close friend George Oaks, a mystery writer, are drawn into the swirl of this intrigue. They begin by trying to track down two missing atomic scientists who were brought into the Sciocrats’ sphere of influence. After a series of cloak-and-dagger adventures involving espionage, murder, mistaken identity, and police investigation, Kemp and Oaks become prisoners of Kadmeel and Chatterton in the Sciocrats’ secret Canadian stronghold. They escape, against nearly impossible odds, and at the cost of Oaks’s life blow up the central nuclear installation, destroying any chance the Sciocrats might have had for giving the world a “great wash” and controlling what was left.

To suggest the elevated literary level of this psychological and philosophical mystery (one of whose most puzzling secrets is the nature of the “unknown islands” in the drawings left by one of the missing scientists), an example or two of Kersh’s style must be given. In one passage, Kemp, the story’s narrator, reflects on a mothball he picked up from his hotel bed, in “one of those moments in which, looking away from the crushed husks of lives, you see the expressed wine, and, in a flash of sublime understanding, perceive the ultimate goodness of many little things. . . .” Kemp continues, describing the mothball as it “caught the light and threw its own shadows in such a way that I might have been holding in my hand the full moon in all its mystery. . . .” In a book with many such gems, however, the following seems to occupy its own place. George Oaks comments on Life:I used to be passionately in love with Life when I was young and foolish, Albert, and then I was terribly...

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