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Lionel Davidson: a revival

Posted on 16th February 2016 by Alex Russell
Alex Russell from Faber & Faber explains how Lionel Davidson's novels, which were immensely popular on the 1960's, have become so popular once again.

‘One of the most powerful thrillers I have ever read’, ‘A breathless story of fear and courage’, ‘An icy marvel of invention’ – these are just some of the outstanding reviews from the original publication of Lionel Davidson’s Kolymsky Heights in 1994.

Davidson wrote nine novels during his lifetime, beginning in 1961 with the award-winning The Night of Wenceslas. Kolymsky Heights was his last, and follows Johnny Porter – a mysterious, combat-ready, multilingual master of disguise – as he makes a treacherous expedition across Siberia to a Russian research station. It was an immediate bestseller and, after falling out of print, had performed well more recently as part of the Faber Finds print-on-demand programme.

Twenty years after this superlative thriller first appeared, a group drawn from across Faber’s departments gathered to plan its next adventure. Relaunching a relatively new book – it’s not a century-old forgotten classic, after all – is rather unusual. We heard some wonderful stories from those who remember the attention it received in the mid-90s. Yet with many fans in the building, and mounting blog posts and newspaper mentions, we were convinced that there was a new audience for it.

We set about uncovering the past reviews, considering the cover design, and discussing it with journalists and booksellers. But what would really encourage readers to join our campaign? It soon became obvious. Philip Pullman had called it ‘The best thriller I’ve ever read’, and we were delighted when he agreed to introduce the new edition. In his introduction, he highlights everything that renders it such an unforgettable read – the almost impossible quest, the alarmingly talented hero and the detail that makes its frozen world so real. 

The revival of Kolymsky Heights has been a fascinating mix of traditional and new ways of publishing and bookselling. Its success continues to be grounded in readers visiting bookshops and hearing booksellers recommend it, and the enthusiasm at Waterstones that resulted in the exclusive edition with its sleek snowy cover has been brilliant. Yet social media has also been important. On Twitter, there are photos of amazing shop window displays along with messages about reading groups and tweets from readers who have stayed up all night to discover Johnny Porter’s fate.

There are new editions on the way in Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Norway. In February, we’ll be reissuing The Rose of Tibet, Davidson’s second novel, with an introduction by Anthony Horowitz. (We were pleased to learn that Anthony had read another of his books as a child!) Charles Houston, the hero of sorts, is charming and remarkably resourceful as he travels through the mountains of Tibet in search of his brother. It’s every bit as good as Kolymsky Heights, with gripping chases over dangerous terrain, seemingly insurmountable obstacles and, of course, a glamorous love interest. Graham Greene puts it best: ‘I hadn’t realised how much I had missed the genuine adventure story until I read The Rose of Tibet’.

So, here’s to the next stage of the journey. We can’t wait to hear what readers think.


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