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Russian Roulette

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Lionel Davidson’s eight popular novels of adventure and high suspense were published sporadically between 1960 and 1994; three of them won Gold Dagger awards from the Crime Writers’ Association, and Davidson received the association’s Cartier Diamond Dagger award for a lifetime’s achievement in 2001. Reading one of his novels is not unlike watching an extended action film like Speed, in which a bus full of passengers has been wired up to a bomb which will explode if the bus’s speed drops below 50 m.p.h. – a genre described by one critic as a ‘Bruised Forearm Movie, because you’re always grabbing the arm of the person next to you’. All the same, in time his books fell out of print. Happily Faber, spotting quality, reissued all eight of them before he died in 2009, and four of the best have now once again been made available.

I met Davidson in 1994 when Kolymsky Heights, his last and arguably his finest, was published. He was slight and unassuming, with expressive dark eyes that widened when I showed him my early proof copy and said how much I’d enjoyed it. How did he come to be familiar with the ‘howling wastes’ of Siberia, virtually closed to outsiders for decades, so chillingly evoked in the book? It was all based on factual research, he said simply; he had never set foot there. He wrote a brief inscription above his signature on my proof copy, signed my battered paperback of his first novel, The Night of Wenceslas (1960), smiled slyly and moved on. The inscription read ‘All our endings are different!’ But of that more later.

Davidson seems always to have been elusive, restless, something of a maverick. He was born in Hull in 1922, the youngest of nine children of a Polish tailor who died when Lionel was only 2. His Lithuanian mother (who was illiterate until Lionel taught her to read) moved the family to Streatham, south London. At 15 he was working as an office boy at the Spectator befor

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Lionel Davidson’s eight popular novels of adventure and high suspense were published sporadically between 1960 and 1994; three of them won Gold Dagger awards from the Crime Writers’ Association, and Davidson received the association’s Cartier Diamond Dagger award for a lifetime’s achievement in 2001. Reading one of his novels is not unlike watching an extended action film like Speed, in which a bus full of passengers has been wired up to a bomb which will explode if the bus’s speed drops below 50 m.p.h. – a genre described by one critic as a ‘Bruised Forearm Movie, because you’re always grabbing the arm of the person next to you’. All the same, in time his books fell out of print. Happily Faber, spotting quality, reissued all eight of them before he died in 2009, and four of the best have now once again been made available.

I met Davidson in 1994 when Kolymsky Heights, his last and arguably his finest, was published. He was slight and unassuming, with expressive dark eyes that widened when I showed him my early proof copy and said how much I’d enjoyed it. How did he come to be familiar with the ‘howling wastes’ of Siberia, virtually closed to outsiders for decades, so chillingly evoked in the book? It was all based on factual research, he said simply; he had never set foot there. He wrote a brief inscription above his signature on my proof copy, signed my battered paperback of his first novel, The Night of Wenceslas (1960), smiled slyly and moved on. The inscription read ‘All our endings are different!’ But of that more later. Davidson seems always to have been elusive, restless, something of a maverick. He was born in Hull in 1922, the youngest of nine children of a Polish tailor who died when Lionel was only 2. His Lithuanian mother (who was illiterate until Lionel taught her to read) moved the family to Streatham, south London. At 15 he was working as an office boy at the Spectator before moving to the Keystone Press. During the war he served as a submarine telegraphist, returning later to Keystone as a photo-journalist. The Night of Wenceslas, set in Czechoslovakia, borrowed from his time working there postwar. It was an immediate success and set a benchmark for his particular forte of fast-moving adventure stories set in exotic places. Hard to categorize other than by their magic in rendering the utterly implausible entirely credible, the eight novels received high praise from other writers: Daphne du Maurier and Graham Greene likened Davidson to Rider Haggard; Philip Pullman introduces Faber’s edition of Kolymsky Heights as ‘the best thriller I’ve ever read’. Four of the eight were set in Israel, where he lived with his wife and children for a decade before returning to Britain. He also wrote several novels for teenagers under the pen name David Line. His plots reveal a fecund imagination enriched by research. The hapless protagonists are plunged into ghastly predicaments – notably Charles Houston’s encounters with Chinese soldiers and then a bear in The Rose of Tibet (his second novel, published in 1962: see SF no. 32). I was sorry to read in an obituary that Davidson disliked this work, because it manages to carry the improbable to Everest-like heights while remaining unputdownable. He can also be very funny. In A Long Way to Shiloh (1966), Caspar Laing, a brilliant, cocky young academic searching for a priceless ancient Jewish menorah, escapes from a Jordanian border patrol into Israel by paddling backwards through the gelatinous Dead Sea, stark naked and tortured by the salt water that stings his scratched body, with an ancient scroll taped to his head. Think Malcolm Bradbury crossed with John Buchan: a weird mixture, but it works. Wenceslas, Tibet and Shiloh are tremendously enjoyable, if unsurprisingly they also show how attitudes have changed in the last fifty-odd years. Though Davidson is astute on character his women tend more to stock figures; in Shiloh, Laing’s uncouth libido is thoroughly incorrect by today’s standards. Shiloh is also historically interesting for having been written when Israel was still seen as a heroic young nation, before the Six-Day War and long before Gaza, behind its monstrous barrier, became Israel’s running sore. Davidson’s last book, Kolymsky Heights, set in the Cold War, is more serious than the early novels and in it his storytelling reaches its peak. It had the misfortune to be published just as the Soviet Union was collapsing, which reduced its impact at the time. But today, with the rise of Putin’s Russia and the cooling of East-West relations, its theme seems prescient, as advances in genetic science designed to benefit mankind are increasingly open to commercial and military exploitation. The novel centres on a quest, a one-man mission to reach a contact in the remotest part of Siberia in an era when foreigners weren’t welcome. Aside from the problem of disguising his tracks across immense distances in lethal cold, this individual has to find an underground research station so secret that it officially doesn’t exist, which is buried in the permafrost somewhere in that alien land of falling whiteness, of ice and darkness. There he must obtain top-secret information from a heavily guarded source before making his way out by a different route to the West. At 480 pages, the book is a long one for what could be classed as an ‘entertainment’, but it never feels over-extended, and the apparently simple linear structure is deceptive. Putting it to the test for a second time, I found that the ferocious narrative pace had lost none of its pull; yet the compulsion to read faster is slowed by the dense web of material detail, all essential to the interlocking plot. The first section deals with finding the only man who can tackle the job and persuading him to do it. A professor of genetics in Oxford is approached through devious, encoded means by an unnamed Russian biologist who urgently needs to contact a third man known to them both. At issue is the body of a prehistoric being – not a mammoth but a young woman, found perfectly preserved deep in a crevasse – and its uses to science. This third man is Johnny Porter, a Gitksan Indian from British Columbia, a freakishly gifted linguist with degrees in biology and anthropology, who has also studied native languages in Siberia. Porter is researching the claims of Canadian tribal people cheated of their birthright by the perfidious British; his suspicion of state authority is confirmed by his succinct negative to an early approach. Then satel-lite photographs detect a fire at the Siberian research station which reveals its hidden contents and increases the urgency of the situation. Something in the images, and the messages, works on Porter to change his mind. Whoever saw the 2015 Faber edition of Kolymsky Heights through to print must be a fan, for several maps have been inserted discreetly in the text, minus page numbers and far enough from the narrative context to avoid giving away clues. So now you can track Porter’s impossible journey around and across the icy vastness of northern Asia, and marvel at the mass of detail that authenticates his zigzagging itinerary. In Tokyo, the spooks supply him with his first identity – each disguise must be effective enough for him to embed himself in a tough job and leave no suspicions hanging over his departure. The pigtailed Korean seaman must work his passage northwards on a tramp container ship making its last navigable Arctic voyage of the year before the ocean freezes over. The bosun – a malevolent bully bent on breaking him – is one of the attendant risks. Then after immense detours, and now disguised as a bald Siberian Chukchee truck driver, he must double back to fill in at the Tchersky Transport Company, thousands of miles to the east. Heavy trailer trucks haul freight from the port to its mines and power stations and industrial settlements along the frozen rivers which are Siberia’s roads in winter. The claustrophobic hard-living communities huddled above Siberia’s subterranean mineral wealth, and their casual racism towards native Siberians, are brought vividly to life. Aside from his workmates, he has women to convince: his flatmate’s girlfriend, large, pale, blonde and eager, and an alarmingly intelligent medical officer who is over-interested in his health and his tribal background. Somehow the fantastic mesh of narrative threads holds, averting a chain of disaster and increasing the suspense. How to steal a bobik – a tough little jeep built for sub-zero conditions – as a possible means of escape? (This bit is ingenious even by Davidson’s standards.) How to locate the research station, find his way in and escape if his cover is blown? . . . At which point, reaching the final pages, I return to the author’s inscription, for my proof copy reaches an ending different from the one that Davidson wrote for the final published version. I therefore have the rare privilege of a choice between the two. Porter’s survival depends on it . . . which is it to be, this time?

Extract from Slightly Foxed 60 © Anne Boston 2018


About the contributor

Anne Boston is a writer and editor and the author of Lesley Blanch: Inner Landscapes, Wilder Shores.

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