Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Review of Kolymsky Heights by Lionel Davidson (Faber & Faber 1994)

The director of a top-secret research lab in the far north of Siberia has information he’d like to share with the outside world. Confined permanently to the lab he manages to sneak a message out to a professor in Oxford he’d met years previously before he’d taken up his present position. The professor gives it to an ex-student turned spy. The director wants Dr Johnny Porter, a Gitxsan Indian who majored in biology and is now a Canadian professor of Anthropology, who he’d also met on trip to the West, to journey to Siberia and find a way into the lab. Porter specializes in the languages of native tribes of the arctic, has the field skills to survive in the harsh environment, and is somewhat of an adventurer. The first task is to persuade Porter to make the trip. Then the challenge is to quickly provide orientation and training and to slip him into a highly restricted zone in Siberia. After that it’s up to Porter to work out how to get into a base guarded by military intelligence, where research staff only ever enter and never leave, and try and recover the director’s information.

Kolymsky Heights is a spy-adventure tale written by three-times CWA gold dagger winner, Lionel Davidson. In the edition I read, Philip Pullman had written a short essay in which he pronounced that the book is the best thriller he's ever read. While there’s much to admire about the story, I’m not convinced it’s as good as Pullman declares. What Davidson does well is the patient build-up. Porter doesn’t zip-in and out of Russia leaving a trail of carnage like a double-zero agent. He’s slipped in via a Japanese trading ship and he establishes himself as part of the local community. It takes weeks to find a viable way into the secret lab and several more to set up an attempt to breach the security. The timespan and pace enables some nice characterisation and a strong sense of place. It took a little while for the story to get going and at times there is an over-elaboration or description that has little plot relevance. I also wasn’t convinced by some of the plot elements, and Porter is a little too extraordinary in terms of his language and acting ability, though every leading man in a thriller usually has some super-human abilities. That said, the plot hook was interesting and by halfway through it’s a real page-turner. In particular, the extended denouement was very nicely done from both Porter’s and a Russian general’s perspective. Overall, an entertaining adventure-spy tale.

1 comment:

SteveHL said...

Thank you for your fine post. I have read and enjoyed all of Davidson's adult novels.