The Phil Thrill – Kolymsky Heights by Lionel Davidson
I bought this on the basis of two connected recommendations. Firstly the cover has a little sticker on it which reads “The best thriller I’ve ever read – Philip Pullman”.
On the strength of those eight words (of which only the last two actually mattered) I picked this up from a display by the checkout in Waterstones. However before I could pay I changed my mind and turned to put it back – enter the Waterstones Sutton bookseller-cum-mind-reader who said “It really is as good as Philip Pullman says it is – it’s the best thriller I’ve ever read too”. So it stayed on the pile and I bought it on the advice of an author whose work I love but I’ve never met, and on the advice of a bookseller who I met for all of ten seconds!!!!
But of course the more influential comment in buying that book was Philip Pullman’s praise of it (sorry lovely folk in Waterstones in Sutton!). So when it comes to reviewing Kolymsky Heights, I thought that the only way to test that recommendation of a literary heavyweight was to see how it measures up to what other literary heavyweights say makes a great thriller.
TEST ONE – Never say ‘no’ to adventures, always say ‘yes’, otherwise you’ll lead a very dull life”
Three men meet and spend an evening in drink-fuelled debate at a scientific conference in England. At the time it is innocuous and almost instantly forgettable to all three. But years later, one of them has become the head of a top secret Russian science laboratory in the Siberian mountains and what they have discovered there scares him to such an extent, he wants the West to know the secret too. His only way to contact the West is through a cryptic message to one of his companions from that fateful conference, an English academic, and from there the security services decipher the message and realise it asks for the third of the triumvirate to come to Siberia so that the secret can be passed on person to person. That third man is Johnny Porter, a multi-lingual, resourceful, Canadian who is offered the job of somehow getting to Siberia, then getting into the top secret lab and then somehow making his way out again. Porter is a man with a coloured past and as ex-special forces he has the skills to go with it – so of course he’s going to say ‘yes!’
VERDICT: KOLYMSKY HEIGHTS PASSES TEST ONE WITH EASE!
TEST TWO – “The way to write a thriller is to ask a question at the beginning and answer it at the end” Lee Child
In a sense the plot of Kolymsky Heights is standard stuff – it’s based on a question – can Porter somehow reach Siberia, get into the top secret facility in the mountains and get back out again alive with the info – and again it’s standard fare in the sense that the book answers that question at the end. So given the relatively standard plot, there must surely be something more to this which would lead Phillip Pullman to such hyperbole?…….and there is!
VERDICT: IT’S A SIMPLE ENOUGH TEST WITH A SIMPLE ENOUGH ANSWER – IT PASSES!
TEST THREE – “……….characters dominate………Everything has to flow from their personalities: otherwise it will not be emotionally engaging” Robert Harris
Without doubt this book passes the Robert Harris test for the characterisation in Kolymsky Heights is brilliant. There’s just enough fragility and uncertainty in Porter to make him utterly believable and perhaps the greatest trick which Lionel Davison pulls off in the main character is not giving Porter some James-Bond-like ability to physically overcome all before him – Porter is a man who conquers by out-thinking others, by out-manoeuvring them and by his dogged determination and perseverance. His feats of heroism and tougness are much more about endurance, patience and attention to detail than anything to do with biceps or a pistol! As a result, Porter is definitely an utterly believable and engaging main character.
VERDICT: BY TEST THREE KOLYMSKY HEIGHTS IS ON A ROLL – MARCHES ON PASSING WITH FLYING COLOURS!
The plot, viewed dispassionately, is ridiculous.....But Davidson has a such a disarming style, and paints the various characters.... with such easygoing charm, that it really doesn't matter! The Guardian
TEST FOUR – “The trust of the innocent is the liar’s most useful tool” Stephen King
That strength of character is exemplified in the ways in which Porter quite literally uses people. He befriends, cajoles, and persuades – he has that ability to know just how to develop and retain relationships with the other characters in the novel so that he is forever ready to take advantage of our natural human instinct to trust. It adds further to the gritty realism but also an air of something very different to the story – yes Porter is in some ways an archetypal ‘hero’ but in other ways he’s much more subtle!
VERDICT: JUST OVER HALF WAY IN THE SPYMASTER TEST SERIES AND IT’S PASS RATE STAYS 100% SO FAR!
TEST FIVE – “…it’s part of the spy’s profession to prey on the community to which he is attached” John Le Carre
Lionel Davidson’s hero does this par excellence – but it’s not physical or even intellectual prowess that Porter uses but more a sort of psychology which seems to be based on Davidson’s understanding of why a community might actually allow itself to be preyed upon in this way and then he invests Porter with the observation, patience and insight to exploit those ‘communities’, whatever and wherever they are. It’s quite brilliantly done.
VERDICT: THERE ARE PASSES AND THEN THERE ARE PASSES WITH HONOURS – THIS IS ONE OF THOSE!
TEST SIX – “There is no terror in the bang……………………………only in the anticipation of it!” Alfred Hitchcock
This is done with absolute mastery in Kolymsky Heights. It’s a thriller which gently moves almost footstep by footstep to the heart of the plot – the lead in to Porter actually getting to Siberia in itself is so carefully drawn, you are almost 170 pages in before he actually gets there! And yet it is worth waiting for because it’s been done with such care and such craft that every word adds to the tension and excitement in the novel – by the time it moves towards its climax I found myself quite literally gripping the page!
VERDICT: ANOTHER PASS – SIX TESTS DOWN AND ONE TO GO!
TEST SEVEN – “The best thriller I’ve ever read!” Philip Pullman
So, overall does Kolymsky Heights live up to that grand claim of Philip Pullman’s? Well, when you consider that it delivers the key ingredients of a thriller that are the combined criteria of John Le Carre, Robert Harris, Stephen King, Lee Child, Ian Fleming and no less than Alfred Hitchcock himself, then Philip Pullman’s grand claim is hardly a surprise. For me, great as Kolymsky Heights was I DIDN’T share Phillip Pullman’s view – that accolade still belongs to the thriller ‘Daddy’ by Loup Durand that I first read around 25 years ago! It’s not even second on my list because I think that would be Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy! But Kolymsky Heights is a brilliant story and it’s brilliantly told – so much so it would definitely be in my top five thrillers of all time – and that’s close enough in my book to say “Good choice Phil!”
VERDICT: ALAS IT FALLS SHORT AT THE END – BUT BY NOT MUCH MORE THAN THE WIDTH OF A FINGERNAIL!
Book Rating - 10!!!!!Lionel Davidson's "Kolymsky Heights" was first published back in 1994. My edition was re-published for Waterstones in 2014 by Faber and Faber. I bought my copy, having been persuaded by Phillip P and a bookseller at Waterstones in Sutton! My edition came with a really interesting introduction from Philip Pullman though if I'm honest I didn't read that till I finished the novel!
When Lionel Davidson died in 2009, the Guardian’s obituary seems to me in retrospect to have been a fitting tribute to a man who was clearly a very fine writer. His books seem to have enjoyed a bit of a renaissance in the last 18 months and there have been recent reviews of his novels in the Independent, the Telegraph and the Guardian. However I’m always keen to promote reviews by fellow bloggers so you’ll find reviews of Kolymsky Heights as good as anything in the broadsheets at For Winter Nights and at Shiny New Books