Book Review Travel

Kolymsky Heights by Lionel Davidson

Photo on 21-05-2015 at 14.49

So, am back in London and have a little over an hour in which to wash, shave, iron clothes, clean my shoes and get to work. Naturally, I’ve chosen to half that time by writing my fourth blog in five days, a review of Kolymsky Heights, a thriller by Lionel Davidson.

I began reading this on my final evening in Istanbul, sat in a shabby rooftop bar overlooking both the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. the views from rooftops in Sultanahmet all tended to be, rather oddly, far less spectacular than those from across the Golden Horn, where I’d actually spent most of my time. Although all the huge, impressive mosques are much closer and one can see some detail, the bars are grubbier, the food is far less appetising and, to be honest, the silhouettes of these structures as they rise up in front of the Sea of Marmara, beside the Topkapi Palace and leafy Gulhane Park, as they overshadow all the buildings around them, as the sun sinks behind them and one drinks a surprisingly delicious Turkish wine in the restaurant atop the city’s Goethe Institut the day before, they look much better. Several mosques and temples and palaces and parks (I’m trying to say in messy, unpractised, unliterary postmodernism) look better from far away, in a group, that one of them looks in detail, close up.

I thought I was being ambitious with the pile of books I took, but I had read every page of four of the five by the time I returned to my door. The final book of my trip was a thriller I had bought a few weeks ago due to a very aggressive window display in Daunt Books*, over in fancy Marylebone. It is “the best thriller [Philip Pullman] has ever read”, and as well as this there were essays and claims abound. I bought it. I hadn’t read a thriller for a while, knew I had a self-indulgent holiday** coming up, so thought it would be a good choice. If Pullman loves it, it can’t be terrible, I thought.

For a long time, I believed I – and Pullman – were wrong. I read about 150 pages yesterday, and the rest during my 7 hour journey earlier today. Until the plane was somewhere over Hungary, I thought the book was shit.

The story is about Johnny Porter, a polylingual academic who has to break into a super-secret laboratory in Siberia in order to discover its deadly secrets, using his linguistic skills. It takes about 300 pages to get there, and about 50 pages are concerned with him building a fucking car that he plans to use to get away. The novel is set after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but Russia is still super super evil, AND within the first 70 pages there have been THREE male characters introduced whose wives have died in tragic circumstances. These are not connected – it’s just bad, misogynistic, plotting. When Johnny finally does get into the secret science lab, it turns out their research is some stupid, sci-fi talking animals crap, but once this has been dealt with it is never discussed again, and then the novel becomes GREAT.

The final 150 pages or so are exilerating, a frenetic chase as Johnny tries to get out of Russia and back to the West, s his routes and his plans are ruined he comes up with new ones and adapts and fights and, well, it’s great. There is a BRILLIANT escape novella waiting at the end of some rather dry novelising about kit cars and talking monkeys.

I don’t know why this book is being pushed heavily (I’ve seen it around a bit, lately), but there is no doubt that the bits of it that are fun are great fun – the end, and all the build up to the end, is great, thrilling, exciting. All the sex is of course stupid, all the women are instantly attracted to the hero and the dodgy race elements of the piece (Johnny is a Native American from Canada, which means, according to Davidson, that he can perfectly pass for about 20 different ethnicities) make this feel like a very dated thriller. It is, though. Davidson was a thriller writer from the 1960s, and this was his final novel that he wrote, in his 70s, in the 1990s. It is full of an old idea of the world, it is not of its time, but of the time of its writer’s first books.

There are chases and dud science and sexy Russian ladies – it is a Bond novel, in essence, but somehow published 40 years late. Really, there are passages of the text that are pretty offensive to both women and anyone of any of the numerous races Johnny commandeers during the novel’s storyline. But, hey, I read it as a thriller on an aeroplane and that, a few hundred pages in, was what I got. Takes a LONG time to get going. But with a four hour flight and an hour train ride and airport queuing either side, I had the time.

An easy and enjoyable read, once Johnny’s on the run…


* Not my favourite bookstore in London – that would be Skoob – Daunt Books is undoubtedly the most elegant, and a lot of fun. Books arranged by country – a far more interesting bibliographical system than one would expect it to be…

** Last night I went to a hammam, which was a surprisingly incredible experience. For about £50 I sat in a steam room until I was so dehydrated I could barely breathe, and then a moustachioed, overweight, middle-aged Turkish man came over and made me lie down – wearing just the tiniest, flimsiest towel you have ever seen – and proceeded to squeeze me, slap me, grope me, squash me, throw water on me, pour water on me, pull my fingers and toes until they clicked, push my head into a pillow that reeked of the juices of a thousand sweaty men, poured bubbly water over me that smelt exactly the same as what my dad used to wash his car in the nineties, made me sit on a marble slab in a way that definitely exposed my genitals to him, pushed me, hurt me, injured me and possibly scarred me… And it was amazing. I felt INCREDIBLE afterwards, like I’d been through a war and won, like I’d expressed hate to a thousand people. I was floating and had to go and lie down, craving a cigarette (which I didn’t smoke, of course, because the first digit in my age is a 2 not a 1 (#antismoking)), wanting to be held, wanting to go through the whole thing again and thinking, more than I had ever thought before, that middle-aged Turkish women must be the luckiest people in the world. If that is what these men can do with their hands, imagine what they can do with their-

1 comment on “Kolymsky Heights by Lionel Davidson

  1. Jonathan


    The book sounds terrible BTW. It’s the same with films; the more frenetic they get the more sleepy I get.


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