My latest draft of the Posture Girl is in and my winter obsession with thrillers is finally abating, but there is one book that I cannot stop thinking about, even though I finished it a couple of months ago. It comes to me with a fresh rush of pleasure, excitement and adrenaline, and I know I’ll read it again. It’s called Kolymsky Heights. And I’m not alone in thinking that it’s one of the best thrillers I’ve ever read; Phillip Pullman says the same on the front of the book and wrote the introduction to this Faber publication.
I’d not heard about Lionel Davidson until he was recommended at my local Daunt’s bookshop. Amongst those who know about thrillers, he’s hardly a secret – he won the Gold Dagger Award three times and the Cartier Diamond Dagger Lifetime Achievement Award before his death in 2009. But to me, he’s a revelation and I can’t wait to read his other books. His first novel, The Night of Wenceslas, was published in 1960 and was based on his experiences as a photographer in Czechoslovakia in 1955. He went on to write another four thrillers over the following thirty-four years, culminating in Kolymsky Heights, which was published when he was seventy-two years old. According to his obituary in the Guardian, Graham Greene remarked on reading, The Rose of Tibet: “I hadn’t realised how much I had missed the genuine adventure story until I read [it].” Davidson also wrote scripts for films, but claimed that he’d rather dig roads. He spent the last half of his life in the hot, dry landscape of Israel where he settled with his wife.
Which makes the setting of Kolymsky Heights all the more interesting. It’s an exhilarating and nerve-wracking ride through the brutal, icy landscape of Arctic Siberia and Cold War science. It feels like it was a long time coming; it’s so thoroughly plotted and lovingly savoured. We learn about tribal communities in Siberia and across to Northern Canada; an imagined secret Soviet research station beneath the ice; and the fearsome and extraordinary possibilities of biological science. It’s such a well-researched book that it’s surprising that the pace of the story isn’t dragged down by detail and intellectual ideas. Instead, it feels remarkably fresh and present, as though the reader is living the adventure as it unfolds and doesn’t once question the authenticity of the voices or the scenes. It’s by far one of the most addictive, nerve-wracking and tense books I’ve ever read.
It’s a classic quest. The hero has to go to a far off place, risk everything to gain the treasure and then return home without being killed. The hero in Kolymsky Heights is an extraordinary man called Dr Jonny Porter, or Jean-Baptiste Porteur. A Gitksan Indian from the Skeena river region of British Columbia who is naturally gifted at languages – an academic and a fighter. An intensely attractive, shape shifting man who is utterly believable, even though I can’t imagine that such a man could ever exist. He receives a coded message from an old academic associate who went missing years before and is then persuaded by the CIA to go under cover into an area of the world that can only be reached by Japanese trawler and find his way into a research centre that’s so protected and shrouded in decades of secrecy that you usually only leave in a coffin.
Unlike many thrillers that are bloated on a fast-paced plot to the detriment of character, Kolymsky Heights has some vividly drawn and varied characters; many are nomadic men and women who don’t fit in any particular culture, like the enigmatic Jonny Porter. There’s an awkward Oxford academic, Lazenby, who is reluctantly dragged into the story at the start when he receives a coded message from Rogachev, the dying director of the research station who wants his discovery known; Ludmilla, at the centre of the story, blinded and gentle; Komarova, the medical officer, who works amongst the communities in this frozen region, who hides her own secrets and has a steely core; like the many others who live on the extreme edge of the world as mechanics or waitresses or sailors or truck drivers.
As this is the perfect season to curl up at home with a compulsive book, I really recommend Lionel Davidson’s Kolymsky Heights. It’s cold outside and what else is there to do during the long nights but sledge over the icy landscape of the Arctic in search of the impossible – a Soviet science station that doesn’t exist but holds an extraordinary secret – with people who are risking their lives to get you there and then to get you out again.