In Praise of Kolymsky Heights

Kolymsky Heights was Lionel Davidson’s last novel, a work of speculative fiction that, thanks to its uncommon setting and his choice of the thriller milieu through which to tell the tale, has much in common with many a classic Bond movie.

At its heart, it’s the tale of a conspiracy between three academics who bond whilst pissing up against a wall, at the fag end of a boozy Oxford conference.

Years later, the Russian member of the trio, Rogachev, who in the intervening years has accepted a one-way ticket to an ultra-secret institute in northeast Siberia as a means of coping with his wife’s untimely death, turns whistleblower and sends a series of coded messages to the second, tweedy Oxford don Lazenby aka ‘Goldilocks,’ exhorting him to persuade the third, Jean-Baptiste Porteur aka Johnny Porter or ‘Raven’ – an ethnography polymath of the native Canadian Gitksan tribe – to clandestinely infiltrate this same institute in order to reveal a great discovery to the world.

Other than a violent bosun whom Porter encounters early on whilst disguised as a Korean seaman, Kolymsky Heights is a tale without bad guys.  The adversary is really just a hangover of the Soviet system that dictates that secret work done in secret institutes shall remain secret because it’s, well, secret.  This being the case it’s to Lionel Davidson’s utmost credit that he still manages to craft such a mesmerising page turner.

Part of the reason for this rests with the utterly compelling central character of academic-turned-agent Johnny Porter, very probably the greatest spy creation in all of thriller fiction.  Part of the reason is the marvellously drawn characters of the two Siberian women Porter crosses paths with; blowsy shopgirl Lydia and Medical Officer Komarova.  The rest of it is down to the mind-boggling amount of research Davidson must have had to do to bring what for most of us is such an alien corner of the globe, replete with Evenks and Chuckchees, bobiks and kamas, so vividly to life.

Having used Siberia as a setting for some of my own fantasy stories, I can attest to the effort involved even today, when we have the Internet.  It must have been a thousand times more difficult when Davidson was embarked upon the writing of this, thirty or so years ago (when Kolymsky Heights was first published in 1994 it was Davidson’s first novel in sixteen years.  A Lionel Davidson tribute website, maintained by his son, says the book was completely rewritten three times).

The plot’s MacGuffin is brilliantly established in a gloriously cinematic[1] prologue but if the book has one slightly underwhelming aspect it is the rather ho-hum secret that somewhat cumbersomely evolves from the initial discovery. This, however is a very minor gripe amongst all that is masterfully wrought, as outlined above.  And the tale has a killer romantic payoff too!

[1] On which topic, I believe there was once mooted a film version, with Michael Caine, Sean Connery and Edward Norton as the three academics but it appears to have fallen through.

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