Reviewed by Harriet
Is there no end to these amazing novelists who appeared to have sunk without trace and are now being revived for our pleasure and instruction? Lionel Davidson has appeared in Shiny before, here. The last of his massively successful thrillers, Kolymsky Heights, was published in 1994, though he lived until 2009. Rediscovered initially by Faber Finds, he is now being republished to great acclaim by Faber’s main publishing arm.
The Night of Wenceslas was Davidson’s first novel, and was a great success on its first publication in 1960. Like the others I’ve read, it’s an exciting thriller, but it’s much less dense and more lighthearted than his later works. The story is told in the first person by young Nicholas Whistler. Born in Prague, where he lived till he was six, Nicholas is the son of an English father, a glass manufacturer now dead, and a Czech mother, his Maminka. He lives in London, works in an office presided over by his unpleasant boss, who he refers to privately as the Little Swine, and spends much more than he earns on his girlfriend Maura and even more so on his precious ‘aged, red, strapbound’ MG car. Money is beginning to be quite a worry – he knows he’s in line for an inheritance from his uncle Bela in Canada, but Uncle Bela stays annoying alive and well. Then out of the blue comes a letter from a Mr Cunliffe, asking him to call at a London office where some good news will be waiting for him. And indeed the news looks really promising. The company will advance him £200 on the strength of what look like very good expectations. Of course he accepts the money with alacrity, and spends most of it in a week.
Needless to say all is not as it first appeared at Mr Cunliffe’s, and now, deep in debt, Nicholas is forced to agree to a supposed business trip to Prague, where he will inspect some glassworks on behalf of a Mr Pavelka, an old associate of his father’s. The only proviso is that he must take a guidebook with him, and ‘forget’ he has left it behind in an office at the works. When he recovers it, Cunliffe tells him, it will contain an undetectable piece of information vital to Mr Pavelka’s glass manufacturing business in London. It all sounds simple enough, and Nicholas is not at all unwilling to spend a few days in the city of his birth, being wined and dined, and staying in posh hotels. And indeed the first trip goes well, even including a memorable night with Vlasta, a glorious, gigantic young woman who has been acting as his interpreter. But then a second trip is called for, and this is where the trouble really begins…
This really is a novel in two halves in a sense, the first half devoted to Nicholas’s bumbling and naïve attempts to follow Cunliffe’s instructions and get the job done as quickly as possible. He’s been expecting something to go wrong and so probably have we, so it’s a relief when it doesn’t, but most readers will be sure that there is trouble in store that he hasn’t foreseen. And of course there is. His second visit to Prague turns very quickly into a nightmare, with people he thought he could trust turning out to be enemies, new enemies appearing out of the blue, beatings, escapes, pursuit. It’s all very well done – the first person narration allows us to sympathise with Nicholas while simultaneously being in no doubt whatsoever, really right from the start of the novel, that he is heading for enormous problems. And when we get to the second half, in which he is on the run from an inexorable and terrifying pursuit, which he knows will almost certainly end with his own death, the excitement and tension mount to an almost unbearable level. Here’s a moment when, trying to escape his pursuers, Nicholas takes some circuitous lanes in order to get as far away as possible from Prague’s central Wenceslas Square, with its great statue of the ancient warrior Duke himself. He’s got himself trapped in a furniture store:
With a faint resurgence of hope I moved to the wall in the shadow of a long line of wardrobes and went slowly up to the windows. As I got there, the moon came out. A silvery luminescence swam over the street like a filmy curtain going up at a theatre. There was someone out there. It only needed one to look to see who.
Silent and alone in the moonlight street he bestrode his great horse, sword raised, iron eyes staring sightlessly along his broad imperial way. Like some homing pidgeon I had come back to him again. Like some demented rat I had run back into my own trap. Like a bloody fool I sat down and wept.
One of the characteristics of this kind of thriller is the way in which the protagonist finds that there is nobody in his world that he can trust. Once events start to spiral away from Nicholas he quickly realises that somebody he knows must have betrayed and deceived him. But who? Can he trust Maura, his attractive girlfriend, who seems so very fond of him? What about old Imre, his mother’s ancient suitor, who lives in the same Bournemouth hotel and silently pays Maminka’s mounting debts? Is his egregious ex-boss the Little Swine involved in some way? All will, of course, be revealed at the end, and there are some suprises in store – I wasn’t expecting the final twist at all. As for Nicholas’s future – it’s safe to say that he has become a wiser man, though no doubt there are still mistakes waiting to be made.
So – a thriller which has lost nothing of its excitement and tension in the fifty-five years since it first appeared, but has of course gained the charm of what has become a period setting. Great stuff.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Lionel Davidson, The Night of Wenceslas (Faber & Faber, 2016). 978-0571326846, 248pp., paperback.
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