Out of the Blue

Posted on 20th July 2016 by Sally Campbell
Enjoying enormous success at the outset of his career - bagging three Crime Writers’ Association’s Gold Daggers, a total only ever matched by Ruth Rendell - Lionel Davidson's writing ultimately fell into almost total obscurity by the late seventies. Sudden interest however in Kolymsky Heights last year has sparked a long-overdue Davidson revival. To celebrate the re-release of Davidson's debut, The Night of Wenceslas, author William Ryan has written an introduction to the ‘stylish, ingenious [book]’ (The New York Times)

Lionel Davidson’s The Night of Wenceslas was first published in 1960 and is set in a rundown post-war London and a Prague that remembers past glories, while living through a Socialist present. It’s a bit confusing, in some ways. It’s a cold war thriller on the one hand, a coming of age novel on the other - and if I had a third hand, which sometimes seems like it would be useful, it’s also a comic novel. I can’t think of many successful comic thrillers, now that I try to, but The Night of Wenceslas is just that. Davidson is a master of suspense, as readers of Kolymsky Heights will know, and it clips along at a tremendous pace even if allowing itself a smirk or two at the hero’s misfortunes. Perhaps most appealingly of all Night of Wenceslas is short, certainly by modern standards, which makes it possible to swallow whole at one sitting. Which is exactly what I did.

The hero of the novel, Nicolas Whistler, isn’t at first a very obvious one. He is half-Czech, 24 and caught in a dead-end job in his father’s former glass-selling business which pays him barely enough to run his MG, a car he bought on a (foolish) whim and loves. On top of which, his financial straits aren’t helping his relationship with his strait-laced Irish girlfriend who seems unaware of any sexual revolution being on the horizon. When a letter arrives, out of the blue, asking Nicolas to call at a solicitor’s office to discuss the estate of his long lost, but very wealthy, Uncle Bela – it seems like the solution to all his problems. But Bela, as it turns out, isn’t dead and instead of salvation the letter results in the rather naïve Nicolas finding himself two hundred pounds in debt and, to settle it, undertaking a trip to Communist Czechoslovakia to collect a glass-making formula for a former colleague of his father’s. Needless to say, this is not the end of his bad luck.<

Nicolas arrives in a Prague he remembers from his childhood but which is now plastered with posters proclaiming “every hand, every brain for the building of Socialism” – even the past is being oppressed by the present. And while nothing in his surroundings is quite as he remembers it so, also, as he is to discover, nothing is quite as it seems about the task he has been sent to do, or indeed about the people he encounters – not least the beautiful and athletic Vlasta Simenova with her “bomb-shaped breasts”. It isn’t long before Nicolas finds that, without any intention on his part, he has become a spy of sorts. Nicolas also discovers, to his surprise, that he can be ruthless when he needs to be, surprisingly cunning, resourceful and, above all, courageous.

Davidson’s wry observational humour, often from Nicolas at his own expense, combined with a pacey plot, keep the pages of The Night of Wenceslas turning and admirers of Kolymsky Heights will be delighted by this earlier novel from Davidson. It certainly doesn’t read like a 56 year old novel – it feels as fresh as it must have done on publication – which just goes to show that good writing doesn’t have a sell by date. Highly recommended.


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