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Espionage and Suspense in Siberia

The collapse of the Berlin Wall may have brought some writers of spy fiction in from the cold war, to scurry to their atlases in search of new villains with thicker accents to populate their fiction. But Lionel Davidson, a British writer with a fast-growing reputation and three literary prizes behind him, has taken a different approach in "Kolymsky Heights," his eighth novel, which has been on the British bestseller list since it was published earlier in the spring. Keeping the old superpower rivalry for technological know-how as his frame of reference, he has turned the thriller genre on its head by making his characters work together against the system. Here we have spying for the greater good of humanity, and in the interests of peace, not war. If that does not sound enticing, think again. The story of "Kolymsky Heights" turns on the chance meeting of three scientists at a conference in Oxford in the 1970s. It could almost be the preamble of a joke: What did the Russian biologist say to the brilliant and rebellious young Canadian anthropologist and the conventional Oxford don? But the free-wheeling conversation the three men have on that drunken night -- a conversation ranging from the ethics of genetics to the nature of sight and the secrets of Siberia -- is to have implications on their lives that are far from funny. Professor Lazenby cycles through Oxford one morning 20 years later to find a mysterious cigarette-paper coded message waiting for him. With the help of MI6 and CIA experts it is found to be a summons. Rogachev, the Russian biologist, is calling out to his old acquaintance from the wilderness, asking him to send out the only man who combines scientific knowledge, action-hero guts and passable Siberian looks to spread the word about a dramatic new scientific breakthrough. Dr. Johnny Porter, our anarchic hero from the Indian tribes of northern Canada, is the only man for the mission. For Professor Rogachev finds himself in a predicament. Twenty years earlier, directionless and depressed after the death of his wife (plausibly enough in a car crash in Sochi), Rogachev accepted the post of director of a top-secret military biology institute buried deep in Siberia. The post was to give new meaning to the clich? about a job for life. For the only way out of the Tcherny Vodi institute is feet first. With unlimited funds and facilities for his work, Rogachev has made not one, but two, fundamental discoveries in the field of genetic engineering and optic fibers. As he dreams of Nobel prizes, the years go by and it becomes clear that the authorities who control him will never allow him to publish his work. It is the age-old problem of might before right (which in this case involves the unequivocal good of bringing sight to the blind). Rogachev's discovery, which could so help humanity, has an equally dazzling secondary application; a military one. Rogachev cannot allow his life's work to be squandered in the pointless battle for military supremacy that should have ended long ago, but he is trapped. And so he sends for Porter. Obscured by these elaborate beginnings and fanciful notions lies a compellingly simple, first-rate adventure story. How will the chameleon-like Johnny Porter penetrate this restricted high-security area of Siberia? If he manages to get past the Russian authorities, will he survive the Siberian winter? Once the narrative is set in motion the pages begin to turn themselves, for Davidson is a master in the art of suspense-building and story-telling. It is hard to define how he does it, beyond the obvious technique of closely measuring the passage of time. It is not the prose, for at best Davidson is a workman-like writer and at worst he is sloppy and his grammar is puzzling: "At that camp, Zhelikov; met for the first time. Zhelikov, already most eminent, was also by then a most seasoned prisoner with many terms and many camps behind him." Davidson relies on geographical accuracy and an underlying layer of detailed research, rather than his descriptive powers, to set the scene for the narrative. He describes in detail the features of a frozen river, for example, without making any real attempt to convey what is must be like to be on the run on an endless Siberian winter night. Nor is it the characterization. For while Davidson steers refreshingly clear of the clich?d stereotypes which often abound in this sort of novel, he can only give us insight into his characters' rational side. We are never helped to understand what makes them lovable or what they care about. And when the determined Doctor Tanya Komorova announces that she has fallen in love with our protagonist, we fail to understand why. However, if you can suspend such critical quibbles until you have succumbed to the pull of the plot, you can be sure that "Kolymsky Heights" will entertain. That is if, unlike Komorova, you do not find the price of an imported book is "ruble-pencilled, astronomically beyond you." "Kolymsky Heights" by Lionel Davidson, Heinemann, London, 448 pages, ?14.99. This book can be ordered by Zwemmers.

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