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"Intensely exciting", "intellectually stimulating", "superbly constructed". Yes, yes and yes! Of course, a publisher wouldn't use snippets of negative reviews for the first page(s) of the paperback edition, who'd buy a book advertised as "an ersatz sleeping pill", "badly written", "boring plot"? Yet, sometimes I'm dumbfounded when I read the snippets from the beginning again after finishing a book and wonder if the reviewers have indeed read the same book as me. How can anyone call a book which *is* an ersatz sleeping pill 'a gripping read'? In the case of Kolymsky Heights every praise is justified in my opinion. It's a clever spy-cum-adventure-cum-technothriller with a love story thrown in moving the protagonist, 'a hero to rival Bond at his resourceful and ruthless best', from Canada to Japan, from there to northern Siberia and back.
Professor Lazenby from Oxford gets cryptic letters, envelopes rather, empty but for a sheet of cigarette paper. When he talks to a former student who now works for the Secret Service, things start moving. The papers are examined, it turns out that they contain messages in code. A Russian scientist, Prof. Rogachev, he met decades ago at a conference, asks him to find a certain Jean-Baptiste Porteur, aka Johnny Porter, and persuade him to visit him and smuggle something out. Out of where? Rogachev lives and works in a top secret research establishment in the north of Siberia which he isn't permitted to leave. It's so secret that the American CIA only learnt of its existence by chance through photos taken by a satellite showing an explosion in a part of the world where they assumed nobody was living.
Johnny Porter is the only possible candidate for this mission. He's a Canadian Indian, speaks English, French, Russian, several Inuit dialects (he's a Professor of linguistics but also a polymath), Japanese and some Korean. He's a jack-of-all-trades, he can assemble a Russian jeep out of spare parts all by himself, is a tough guy and also a ladies' man.
The first part deals with his getting to the secret station. This is a long and dangerous trip, however, he's always helped and taken care of by members of the CIA. Once there he's on his own, how to get in he has to find out for himself and more so how to get out again and back to his home country. For this he gets only vague directions. Nobody knows if it's doable at all, if the scientists working in the station can't leave, how will an intruder be able to and preferably alive, too?
On the Japanese ship taking him to the north of Siberia he pretends to be a sulky Korean with a speech deficit (his Korean isn't perfect, he only learnt it for a week), in Siberia he becomes a lorry driver in a small town near the station to be able to explore the surroundings as a happy-go-lucky Chukchee, a member of an Inuit tribe in the very north east of Siberia exploiting the Russian prejudice that the Chukchees are a bit daft (Russian jokes on Chukchees resemble English ones on the Irish).
To be honest, I found the beginning of the novel a bit slow, but the more I got into it, the more I was on the edge of my seat. Siberia is a setting which I hadn't encountered before in a thriller, but as a former teacher of Russian I was very interested in it. Thrillers are a subgenre of realistic fiction and so the author has included a lot of information on the life in this barren and forbidding part of the world. Johnny Porter is there in winter which means temperatures down to -60° and hardly any light during the day. What kind of people live there at all? Besides the Asian reindeer herders who've always been there for thousands of years former prisoners from Soviet Gulag camps and their descendents as well as workers from all over Russia who've come to make good money in the gold and diamond mines. A reviewer calls Kolymsky Heights "a plausible and sophisticated technothriller that, unfortunately, is also a lengthy* Siberian travelogue". Nonsense! *Fortunately* is the right word!
How do we find books, how do they find us? I admire everyone who can write on demand, I can't even read on demand. If someone urges me to read a book because it's so brilliant, I feel under pressure and blocked. Apart from the language I also had to teach my pupils a bit about the geography of the Soviet Union (which it was then) so Siberia has never been a blind spot on the map of the world for me but I've also got a direct access to Siberia at the moment. A Russian language assistant at a secondary grammar school in our town is currently living in our house. She's a Burjatian from a Mongolian ethnic minority mainly settling east of Lake Baikal in the south of Siberia bordering Mongolia (~ 5000 km east of Moscow). I told her about the novel and that Johnny Porter could talk with the natives of the area in their dialects, for example with the Evenks, and she told me that where she lived there were also Evenks. This really brought the novel to life for me, not that it isn't lively enough on its own, but I think you know what I mean.
The author Lionel Davidson was an unknown name for me before I discovered Kolymsky Heights. He was born in Hull in 1922 (and died in 2009), he worked as a reporter before serving in the Royal Navy in WW2. He published his first novel in 1960 (The Night of Wenceslas) which won the Crime Writers' Association's Gold Dagger Award (the top prize for crime and spy fiction in Britain) as well as the Author's Club. He won the same reward two more times and was awarded the CWA's Cartier Diamond Dagger lifetime achievement award. Sadly, Davidson wasn't very prolific, all in all he wrote only nine thrillers. I intend to read my way through all of them.
*454 pages and I didn't mind!