A stylish, chilly, Siberian set thriller, with dabs of Sci-Fi
Lionel Davidson’s Kolymsky Heights was first published in 1994. As the major political adversaries are Russia on the one hand and the intelligence services of Britain and North America on the other, the book was slightly out of time with itself, as the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 90s meant that Russia was not quite such a potent repository for parking all ideas of ‘the foe to be overcome’, a necessary part of any adventure story.
I’m certainly, on the strength of this one, interested in investigating more of Davidson’s books. This one was re-published in 2015, to critical acclaim. Although I can’t quite concur with Philip Pullman who said it was “The best thriller I’ve ever read” , being a devotee of early Greene and Eric Ambler for that accolade, it is certainly, in my mind ‘a tremendous thriller’
Something appears to be going on at a research station deep in Siberia, and surveillance satellites and spy planes have taken some curious photographs. A Soviet scientist who once attended a conference sends an ambiguous and unsigned message to an English academic whom he met at a conference some years earlier. It is not easy to see and understand quite who the real recipient of the ambiguous message should be, nor even where the scientist sent the message from, or how. He has vanished from the scientific community.
British and American intelligence mysteriously converge on the English academic. They are keen to discover who this message is really being sent to.
Enter a classic, unbelievable, with-one-bound-he-was-free hero, Johnny Porter. But the bounding one, possessing any manner of physical and linguistic skills, is nonetheless very far from ‘cartoon’. He is not James Bond, he does not indulge in a string of bed-hoppings with the pulchritudinous, though he does have a great ability to charm people. He is indeed a good man, an intelligent man, – and an extremely reluctant spy. Johnny Porter, also known as Jean-Baptiste Porteur, comes from a tribal Indian background from a particular area of British Columbia. He is an academic, and involved in various progressive causes. He’s also a loner, and a bit of a shape-shifter, in that he can successfully pass himself off as belonging to a number of possible ethnicities, from part Korean to part member of a number of Siberian ethnic groups – Evenk, Chukchee.
Pullman’s foreword to my edition is an unusually fine foreword. I read it, as is now my wont, after I finished the book. Too many forewords reveal plot. Pullman doesn’t, though he does let us know why the book is so successful. It is a classic ‘hero quest’ story: an unlikely person, with hidden gifts, sets out on a dangerous adventure. Along the way they will meet surprising companions who will aid them in their dangerous quest. Fairy stories would make the companions magic talking animals, fairy godmothers disguised as poor beggar-women and the like. The dangerous quest (and there is a lot of danger here) in fairy and myth involves something of great and rare value. The quest will transform and extend the seeker. And IF successful the seeker will bring the gift of value back to his or her wider community. And there may very well be a rival quest going on at the same time by those forces who wish to stop the good seeker being successful. This is NOT a fairy-story, but it has the myth/fable structure, meaning ‘helpers’ may be surprising. The quest adventure is a classic kind of story, and can be done well or badly.
Here, it is done very well indeed. One of the real pleasures is that Siberian setting, and the complexities of different ethnicities, languages and cultures within that vast region. Another is the very detailed physical descriptions of how exactly our hero gets to do some of the things he is doing. For those who care about these things these detailed descriptions do not include graphic and gratuitous accounts of violence or sexual encounters. But it is the detailed descriptions of, for example, the building of a particular truck type vehicle which can cope with cross country Siberian travel, which also does give me some reservations. It is a long read, nearly 500 pages, and at times those descriptions, whilst they ground the story in reality, sometimes do hold up the forward pace. Greene and Ambler go for greater tautness, and a shaving of excessive detail. Perhaps they trust, a little more, that the reader acknowledges the genre, and WILL suspend their disbelief if enough, but not too much, reality joins the dots of the one freeing bound!
And, finally, big thanks to the excellent Karen from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, who sent me racing to buy this one, after her unstoppably appetite whetting review.
Escapist reading of fine quality is some comfort in these parlous times