Kolymsky Heights by Lionel Davidson

3 Mins read
Kolymsky Heights

Lionel Davidson and his thrillers have been unjustly neglected in recent years. He blazed a trail with articulate and complex international spy stories just before John Le Carre and Len Deighton achieved celebrity status. However, a few years ago Philip Pullman selected Davidson’s 1994 novel Kolymsky Heights for his Waterstone’s author table. This recommendation brought many new readers to the book, so much so that Faber and Faber decided to print a fresh edition with an introduction by Pullman himself.

In his piece, Pullman likens Kolymsky Heights to the classic quest novel, in that it follows the three basic ingredients found in such stories as Treasure Island, Jason and the Argonauts, King Solomon’s Mines, and Lord of the Rings. A hero travels to a far-off place in difficult circumstances; he must retrieve something valuable and there will be serious consequences if he doesn’t; finally, he must return even though he may be a poorer but a wiser man after the trials of his journey. Pullman also declares it the bet thriller he’s ever read, so we set out to see if he’s right.

This was Davidson’s final novel, and he tells the tale of a Russian research laboratory in the vast wastes of Siberia. Scientists at Tcherny Vodi have discovered something both terrible, and amazing. A message is secretly sent to the West, and the intelligence services send a Native Canadian – the talented Johnny Porter – to retrieve the secret. Porter is Special Forces trained and multilingual. His ethnicity enables him to pass off as almost anyone other than a white European, and the first part of his odyssey has him posing as a Korean sailor aboard a tramp ship scuttling between God-forsaken ports north of Siberia. He infects himself with a Yellow Fever-like virus on purpose, knowing that he will have to be medically evacuated from the ship to the nearest hospital with isolation facilities.

Once ashore in Siberia he is treated, recovers, and then does another identity swap. As Kolya, a good natured Chukchi Eskimo, he gets a job driving a truck. With the help of a surprising ally, whose identity is best withheld here, and a group of indigenous Evenk herdsmen, Porter gains access to the forbidden unit at Tcherny Vodi. He finds out what it is that its director Rogachev, who has only a short time to live, wishes to share with the wider world. However, the authorities have worked out that Kolya the Chukchi is not who he claims to be, and a manhunt kicks in. Porter’s exit from Siberia makes his arduous and elaborate entrance seem like a day trip to the seaside. As a narrative, it makes for one of the most electrifying passages of action I have ever read.

It has to be said that this is not a conventional crime novel. However, it is a brilliant thriller, immaculately researched, and one which asks serious questions about how much – or how little – we know about genetic engineering. Davidson paints a breathtaking picture of Siberia, a place where human life just about hangs on above the permafrost, but also a land which holds more oil, minerals, gold and diamonds than anywhere else on earth. There is a beautiful love story woven into the plot, and this golden thread stays with you literally up to the last page.

The sheer depth of technical detail included in the story is challenging at times, but Porter’s meticulous preparation for his mission and the extent of his subterfuge are very reminiscent of those employed by that other great fictional deceiver, Frederick Forsyth’s Jackal. Kolymsky Heights has not aged one little bit in the 21 years since its publication, and I am inclined to agree with Philip Pullman’s opinion. If you read only one thriller this year, make it this one.

If Kolymsky Heights sounds like your kind of book, you might also like The Boy from Reactor 4.

Faber & Faber

CFL Rating: 5 Stars

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