Kolymsky Heights by Lionel Davidson
Why is it that some books become acclaimed as classics or part of the canon, while others slip out of view to become forgotten, or remember by a handful of loyal readers? I guess if I could answer that I’d be working in publishing, but I have to say that I often find myself enjoying the lost books and wishing they were being brought back into the public eye. So when I read about “Kolymsky Heights” by Lionel Davidson, a thriller first published in 1994 which was now being lauded as the greatest thing since sliced bread, I was naturally intrigued; particularly as much of the book is set in Siberia….!
Davidson’s first thriller was published in 1960 to great acclaim; he wrote more, all highly rated, but was not overly productive, and KH was his last published work. He seemed to drift out of thje public eye for a while, but his books were republished as part of the excellent Faber Finds series, and now KH is being hailed by author Philip Pullman as the greatest thriller ever written – heady praise indeed! I’ve been tempted several times to buy a copy, but a chance find in a local charity shop for 75p made me glad I’d waited to obtain my copy.
KH opens with a scientific discovery in the ice in the far north of Siberia. Is it a mammoth or is it something else? The unnamed narrator gives us hints but then the story shifts to Oxford where we encounter Professor Lazenby; the latter has connections with various Government departments and is surprised to receive an envelope from abroad containing two cigarette papers. Luckily he knows a man who can find out if there is any kind of message hidden on these, and there is – a strangely written one, summoning help from the other side of the world. The message comes from an unbelievably secret base in Siberia, and the writer is trying to make contact with the one man he thinks can break into the base to meet him. That man is Johnny Porter, by descent a Canadian Indian of the Gitxsan tribe, and a man with uncommon linguistic skills.
Porter, the author of the note and Lazenby had brief contact at one point in the past, but tracking down the elusive Canadian will not be easy. Even if they succeed in finding him, will he talk to Lazenby? And will he agree to take on the mission of heading for the frozen and notorious Kolyma region of Siberia?
I guess it’s fairly obvious that he will, or there would be no book! However, the plot, the route he takes and the execution of the plan are all meticulously portrayed in this gripping story. As we watch Porter on his travels we marvel at the complexity of the various secret services and the versatility of our hero. His appearance and his knowledge of languages stand him in good stead as he’s able to pass as a number of different native peoples; and he does seem to have a remarkably wide range of skills, from acting, building and driving vehicles to being successful with the ladies!
I don’t want to say any more about the plot because half the joy of this book is watching the story develop with the little twists and surprises that come with it. And joy is the right word, because I absolutely loved this book. It’s one of those stories that really *is* a page turner, where you just have to keep reading to find out what happens. KH is a long novel – nearly 500 pages – but none of it feels superfluous and the detail that Davidson goes into about the processes Porter goes through, the places he’s in and the background to the various situations means that the book, despite being very thrilling, never feels rushed. In particular, the cinematic set-piece that’s the climax of the story comes alive in all its filmic glory because of Davidson’s excellent writing.
KH is a book where I took a liking to all the characters and they’re all well-rounded and mostly believable (apart from Porter’s occasional superhero-like traits!) Location is also vital to KH’s success, and the image built up of the Siberian landscape is impressive – if Davidson never visited the place he does a damn good impression of someone who knows it well. The end of the book is satisfying, rounding everything off nicely, and really you couldn’t wish for a more exciting thriller.
But is Pullman right with his claim that it’s the best one ever? If I’m honest, I’m not really in a position to answer that, as I haven’t read enough. Back in my teens I read plenty of Alistair McLean; I’ve loved “The Thirty Nine Steps” and “The Riddle of the Sands”; but I don’t have enough knowledge of modern thriller writing to say. What I can say is that “Kolymsky Heights” is a cracking read, gripping, exciting and thoroughly enjoyable – if you like good thriller writing, you’ll definitely like this!