The Heights of fame for a long forgotten man

Everywhere you go these days, you can see copies of Kolymsky Heights, a thriller written more than 20 years ago.


Everywhere you go these days, you can see copies of Kolymsky Heights, a thriller written more than 20 years ago. It's all very strange. When the author, Lionel Davidson, died in 2009 he had published one novel in 30 years. The month before he died, the Independent ran an item headed, Forgotten authors no. 37: Lionel Davidson.

The journalist Peter Hitchens, one of Davidson's biggest fans, wrote an article about him two months later, calling him a "neglected thriller writer". Now he's everywhere. What's going on?

Davidson was born in Hull in 1922, part of the same generation of Jewish writers as Alexander Baron, Roland Camberton and Wolf Mankowitz He was one of nine children of an immigrant Polish-Jewish tailor called Davidowitz.

His mother spoke only Yiddish. According to one obituary, Davidson "taught her to read and write with a battered, large-type copy of Goodbye, Mr Chips." His father died when he was two and the family moved to south London. He left school at 14 and then had one of those strange literary careers that no one has any more: working as an office boy at the Spectator, he then served on a submarine during the war (he claimed to be one of only two Jews who saw action on a Royal Navy submarine), had a nondescript 15 years after the war and seemed to be going nowhere.

In 1960, Davidson wrote his first novel, The Night of Wenceslas, a Cold War thriller set in Prague. His timing was perfect. It was the heyday of Cold War fiction: just before Le Carré and Len Deighton wrote their first novels and two years before the first James Bond film. Davidson had his finger on the pulse. His novel was an instant success. It won the Crime Writers' Association's Gold Dagger Award (the top prize for crime and spy fiction in Britain) and was made into a film with Dirk Bogarde a few years later. Davidson followed it up with The Rose of Tibet and The Rose of Shiloh, which won Davidson his second Gold Dagger. He won his third with Chelsea Murders (1978). The only other writer to win three is Ruth Rendell.

Here comes the first twist. The Rose of Shiloh was the first of three novels by Davidson to be set in Israel. Soon after the Six-Day War he and his family moved to Israel, and remained for 10 years. After he returned to Britain in the late 1970s, Davidson lost his momentum. He wrote only one more thriller in the last 30 years of his life - Kolymsky Heights.

Just before Davidson died, Faber started to reissue all his novels in 2008. That year, in The Times, Philip Pullman called Davidson's last novel, "The best thriller I've ever read." Then things went quiet.

Until last year - when Peter Hitchens wrote a piece for the Daily Mail: Lionel Davidson Revisited, praising him as an accomplished, old-fashioned storyteller. That summer, The Observer called Kolymsky Heights "a hidden gem" and the New York Times called it "an icy marvel of invention," adding: "It is written with the panache of a master and with the wide-eyed exhilaration of an adventurer in the grip of discovery."

In March of this year the Daily Telegraph ran a long, effusive piece called, Lionel Davidson: The best spy novelist you might never have read.

How did an almost forgotten thriller-writer take on a new lease of life? First, Russia and Cold War tensions are back. Cold War thrillers didn't fare well after the fall of Communism, but with Putin and conflict in Ukraine Davidson's thrillers are suddenly topical.

More generally, Davidson's stories with their unheroic characters - Englishmen alone in a dark and hostile world - speak to the widespread mood of pessimism today, driven by the financial crash and violence in the Muslim world. And while academic critics focus on post-colonialism and experimentation, ordinary readers have an appetite for well-told adventure stories.

Pieces on Davidson talk longingly of a tradition from Rider Haggard and John Buchan to Graham Greene. One journalist wrote how Davidson's thrillers are "shorn of pretension and concerned with the way ordinary people think and behave".

They are wonderfully old-fashioned, full of drama and adventure, exotic locations, goodies and baddies.

Davidson is not the only writer to have recently been rediscovered. Think of James Salter and John Williams. And now, Lionel Davidson, the Jewish immigrants' son from Hull, is back and Kolymsky Heights is where it belongs, in the bestseller lists.

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