Kolymsky Heights by Lionel Davidson

Reviewed by Harriet

Kolymsky_HeightsI must admit that I’d never heard of Lionel Davidson before this novel came my way. I now know him to have been a celebrated writer of spy thrillers between 1960 and 1994, when Kolymsky Heights was published by Heinemann. This book has now reappeared thanks to Faber, who brought it out a few years ago as part of their Faber Finds series and who have now republished it with an introduction by Philip Pullman, who proclaims, on the smart new cover, that it is ‘the best thriller I’ve ever read’. Something to live up to there, then, and Pullman is far from alone in his praise of the book. Could I possibly love it that much?

Well, Kolysmsky Heights is undoubtedly a remarkable achievement. It’s an adventure story, set mainly in the frozen wastes of Siberia, where a highly secret underground research station is located – a laboratory so secret that it actually doesn’t officially exist. Any scientist who goes to work there is forbidden to leave, or even to communicate with the outside world. But one scientist has a message he considers so important that he manages to smuggle it out, and, by the most circuitous and devious means, it reaches the man he wants to summon. This man is Jean-Baptise Porteur, or Dr Johnny Porter, a Giksan Indian from British Columbia. Porter must be one of the most memorable heroes ever created. Intellectually brilliant, with a prodigious talent for languages – not only knowing those of his own tribe and several others, but also later becoming fluent in Japanese, Korean, Russian and several Siberian dialects – he also holds several higher degrees, is highly skilled at fighting, talented at engineering, immensely brave and extremely attractive to women. Maybe this sounds as if he might be too good to be true, but Davidson’s great skill in this novel is to make him entirely believable. And of course without all these abilities he would not have been able to undertake the quest which forms the central story of the novel.

US 1st edition cover
US 1st edition cover

Porter’s task is to reach the secret laboratory, known only as The Facility. It is located near Tcherny Vodi, itself an outpost so remote that few people even know of its existence. For Porter even to get there – and of course his journey, and his goal, must remain completely secret – seems like an insuperable challenge. Once at Tcherny Vodi, he must get into the Facility, though nobody from outside is ever allowed in. He must find Rogachev, the scientist who has sent for him, smuggle out the precious evidence that the dying man wants to get to the outside world, and then, of course, he must somehow get back to civilisation. When you add to the constant danger of discovery the fact that the whole enterprise must be undertaken in conditions of such hardship that most people wouldn’t survive for a day – incredibly low temperatures, deep snow piled on top of the permafrost, no roads – you realise that it’s going to be a miracle if Porter completes his task and survives. But complete it he does, at great expense both physical and mental, having undergone a series of extraordinary adventures and been aided by some wonderfully unlikely people. He manages to pass himself off as a member of several Siberian tribes, as well as a Korean and a Japanese, at various stages of his journey, aided by his own racial characteristics and his ability to pick up languages with extraordinary ease. Even his skill at engineering becomes invaluable at one crucial point in the narrative, and his apparently irresistible attractiveness to women saves his life more than once.

I knew nothing at all about Siberia and its inhabitants before I picked up this novel, but the place and the various tribes that live there came vividly to life through the narrative. The details of all this are remarkable and one can only assume that Davidson did a huge amount of research before he wrote the novel, though, as Philip Pullman says in his introduction, it is equally possible that he just sat at his desk and made it all up. Either way, it couldn’t matter less. Pullman is right in pointing out that this is an archetypal quest narrative – the journey, the goal, the return – one in which the hero is tested to the very extremes of his abilities, and one which he completes with enormous courage. I’m not normally attracted to spy thrillers or adventure stories, but this one is in a class by itself and a real demonstration for me of how good it can be to sometimes step outside your comfort zone. I won’t forget Johnny Porter in a hurry, nor the frozen wastes, nor, indeed, the extraordinary and moving discovery he makes when he finally gets into the Facility. What that is, I’m not going to tell you, so you’ll have to read the novel to find out.

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Harriet Devine is one of the editors of Shiny New Books, and doesn’t much fancy a trip to the frozen wastes.

Lionel Davidson, Kolymsky Heights (Faber & Faber: London, 2015). 9780571324217, 476 pp., paperback.

6 Comments

  1. I read this years and years ago. Can’t remember exactly when but it was pre-millenium. I remember it as one of the best thrillers I’ve ever read. While in London, 2 weeks ago, the shop window of St. Pancreas Hatchard’s was full of this reissue. I wondered what was going on and was sorely tempted to buy a copy and re-read. I now know what’s happening and regret not caving into my acquisition cravings. Still I’ve no doubt it will happen sooner rather than later, now that I’ve read your review.

    1. I’ve had a copy on my shelves for years but never got around to it – it’s become an absolute must-read now!

  2. Victoria

    Lizzy, I did exactly the same thing – saw the book in the bookshop, wasn’t sure, walked away. I am thinking now that I’ll have to return and get myself a copy! Great review, Harriet.

  3. Ellen Bernstein

    I read this back in the nineties when it first came out in mass market paperback and I have held on to that book for many years. I, too, am not a thriller reader and have no idea what induced me to pick it up. Yes, it’s the best thriller ever. The plot, the characters, the landscape of Siberia, and, most of all, the writing are skillfully created and propel the story forward. Highly recommended. Hope this brings it to the attention of a generation of new readers

    Now, if I could just find that old copy somewhere in my vast book collection!

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