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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About the contributor

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

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