Friday, May 31, 2013

Forgotten Books: The Secret Masters -- Gerald Kersh

Since this book was published in 1953, I must have read it that year or the next.  I remembered next to nothing about it except that I thought it was great at the time.  Reading it again now, I wonder how a kid of 12 or so managed to get through it at all.  I suspect that no kid now would read more than a page.  A lot of adults might not, either.

I'm almost 100% certain that no publisher would touch it in 2013.  Why? First of all there's the writing style.  I guarantee you that there are more semicolons per page in this book than you'll find in 100 thrillers written and published in the last decade.  And dashes and, well, here's a sample sentence from page 46: The Greek laughed richly, opening a bottle of Mavrodaphne, and said that it was necessary only to sit down at such-and-such a table and take it easy; the bookkeeper would be coming down to lunch in a few minutes: a harmless old man, "but with the figures, a whiz" -- he kissed his hand in ecstasy.  

It's the kind of book where characters speak for pages without interruption, scattering literary allusions from sources ancient and modern on every page, where paragraphs take up at least half a page and sometimes more, where there's considerably more telling than showing.

The plot? Well, it's timely enough.  A bunch of super-rich men, known as the Sciocrats, plan to take over the world.  Our Heroes might be able to stop them, but can they?  Sure, but it's not easy.  The last 1/4 of the book introduces the only real action in the story, and it's enough to make you think that Ian Fleming must have read the book and thought he could do something similar himself, but in a very different style.

This probably sounds like a negative review, and I guess it is.  Still, I got a kick out of the book.  Nostalgia was part of that, but I also enjoyed the humor, much of which must have gone over my head when I was a kid, as did many of the literary allusions.  Let me leave you with one paragraph that you might enjoy, tossed in when the police arrive on the scene:

Writers of crime fiction may have led you to assume that any detective worthy of the name must look like something else: he must live in dressing gowns, be slender, have a good nose for fine tobacco and a palate for good wine, know the difference between a drypoint and a mezzotint, have eccentricities, talk superior, and be able to distinguish a Dionysian tetradrachm by touch in the dark.  If it happens to be a gluttonous orchid-fancier, a jaw-bopping three-bottle-of-rye man, a violin-playing cocaine addict, a marasmic dandy who clips his Engilsh and rolls his own cigarettes with Bull Durham which he carries loose in his waistcoat pocket -- so much the better. It is just as well if he happens to be a Belgian with funny mustaches, or a pimplish Greek with a temperamental wife, or a satanic blond man who has a superhuman capacity for bourbon and bullets and is reluctantly compelled to knock somebody's teeth down his throat in every other chapter.  He may also be afflicted with locomotor ataxis, and play with bits of string in tea shops; or he may be a priest, a stupid-looking priest with dull gray eyes, of course, and a gampish umbrella.  In peacetime, he may even be a Japanese who will clap the Nami-Juji on a felon five times his size before you could say "Jack Diamond, or a fat Chinese who quotes Confucius.  Anything quiaint, anything out of character, anything but a policeman!


obaid said...

You always pick such interesting!
I have not seen this one and now feel I must do so soon.
Loved your description of it. Thank you for picking this one.

Jerry House said...

A fantastic writer, but not everyone's cup of tea. Kersh is probably best known for THE NIGHT AND THE CITY, but I much prefer his quirky and witty short stories.

George said...

I'm with Jerry: I love Kersh's unique short fiction. Harlan Ellison wrote a brilliant introduction to one of Kersh's short story collections, MEN WITHOUT BONES.

John said...

I tried reading Kersh's novel Prelude to a Certain Midnight but the style turned me off. Never finished it.

I love that paragraph about the detective. Kersh read Carrol John Daly! I got them all except the clipped English speaker who rolls his own. Is that Philo Vance? He drops his G's in words like "interesting" but I dont' remember the cigarette tobacco bit.

Bill Crider said...

I didn't know that one, either, but my guess was Vance.

Michael E. Stamm said...

I too prefer Kersh's myriad short stories, which are often brilliant, although the novels FOWLERS END and A LONG COOL DAY IN HELL. among others, are in some ways remarkable. I read THE SECRET MASTERS years ago and--strange, for a Kersh title--remember absolutely nothing of it except that I _did_ read it.

BTW, the Ellison intro is in NIGHTSHADE & DAMNATIONS (Fawcett Gold Medal, 1968), not MEN WITHOUT BONES, a somewhat older collection (and the American and British versions of the latter are quite different).

Anonymous said...

I found Kersh's novels not to my taste. I did read the Karmesin stories as reprinted by Crippen & Landru 10 years ago.

The amazing part to me is that you liked the book so much when you were twelve! Clearly a man ahead of his time.


D.A. Trappert said...

I remembered reading this one, but I had to go back to my LibraryThing account to see exactly what I thought of it:

The first Kersh book I have read and it definitely makes me want to read more--but they're so hard to find, at least if you insist on doing the used book store hunt as I do. I have read that this is not necessarily a typical Kersh book. It seems a little reminiscent of, though better written than, Ian Fleming. The main joy of the book is the camaraderie and (dare I say) love between the two leading male characters as the join in the pursuit of some sort of dastardly conspiracy. Kersh writes with great talent and a keen British sense of humor that makes reading this book very enjoyable. I only give it 3 1/2 stars because when you boil it all down at the end, it seems a litte silly. But the ride was fun.

Bill Crider said...

"Love" is a word the narrator uses more than once. And I agree that the end is pretty silly.

Richard Moore said...

His short stories were brilliantly inventive and ranged from chilling to quite funny.

I read this novel over 50 years ago and having read NIGHT AND THE CITY was very disappointed. Yet, I love paranoid science fiction and that aspect gave me some pleasure. It was called THE GREAT WASH in the UK.

Several of Kersh's novels beyond Night...City I enjoyed including PRELUDE TO A CERTAIN MIDNIGHT, which I understand is not to all tastes. The short novel CLOCK WITHOUT HANDS is another good one.

Perhaps his best novel as nominated by George Kelley in the third edition of TWENTIETH CENTURY CRIME AND MYSTERY WRITERS is FOWLER'S END (1957).

Kersh had a distinctive "voice" that resonates with me.