My First Thriller
By that I mean the first book officially so designated that I remember reading (I may have read one years before that didn’t stay in my memory). I read it for review; I can’t remember now what journal assigned the book to me 24 years ago — it wasn’t the NY Times, for whom I wrote some reviews around then — but the review was not used. I think the reader can guess why, and I should have known better than to write as I did (actually I likely did know better and just paid no attention to myself). The book was Kolymsky Heights by the respected British thriller writer Lionel Davidson. Here it is:
Someone who for years has read reviews, blurbs and ads for books categorized as “thrillers” but has never actually read one would want, for his first experience, a certifiably top-drawer example. Lionel Davidson and his new book arrive with the sort of blurbs that indicate reviewers in ecstasies, nearly unable to pitch their praises high enough: “One ofthe most powerful and atmospheric thrillers I have ever read,” says the Times. “Beyond comparison,” says the Spectator. “Breathtakingly brilliant.”
So what sort of read is it? Can an uninitiated reader tell whether this is in fact a superior thriller, or are the standards too different from those set for other kinds of books?
It begins with the voice of a Russian scientist, speaking (via computer disk, we will learn) to a far-off long-ago acquaintance, whom he tells of his strange life: he has been chosen, or has volunteered, to join an ultra-secret research project buried under the permafrost of deepest Siberia, from whose underground city no one who comes to work there may ever depart. Comforts and security unexampled elsewhere make up for this fairy-tale curse, and the pleasures of cutting-edge research with unlimited funding. But now the scientist knows he must communicate to the outside what he has learned.
The CIA and British intelligence, having very cleverly discerned the scientist’s intentions, locate the one man who might have a chance to penetrate the compound, the man the Russian scientist asked specifically for: a Canadian Indian ethnobiologist and linguist named Johnny Porter. Rebel, outsider, woodsman, Porter is also an expert on, and speaks fluently, several native languages of the Arctic (he speaks Korean and Japanese like a native, too;) but it is the draw of what the Russian may have discovered that convinces him to go in. Getting out again will be largely up to him.
So the first rule of a thriller is to construct convincingly a nearly impossible task that only your hero is fitted, by luck or need or training, to perform. Done, and well done. Now begins the long adventure of getting to, and into, Siberia, and into the closed security district around the research station, and down into the compound itself. This seemed at first to involve far more elaborate deceptions and dangers and split-second timing than necessary, but what would I know? Porter, playing a Korean seaman, goes North on a Japanese tramp steamer, chemically induces a bad but not fatal case of yellow fever which causes him to be abandoned at a lonely station on the Russian coast, and so goes deeper and deeper, switching identities, finally taking work with forged papers at a trucking station that services the compound.
The simplicity of the tale–there is for much of the story no real hitch in the plans, and none of the reverses, deceptions, and double-crosses spy novels are built on–is countered by the awful and vividly described labors Porter endures, from greasing a dangerous derrick on the tramp steamer in an ice storm, to night driving big rigs along frozen rivers, to building a four-wheel-drive vehicle from parts in a cave. Much of the time he is exhausted. So is the reader. Gruelling rather than thrilling, the narrative has undeniable force; and the hard work Porter does is itself overshadowed by the heroic research that the reader senses the writer to have done: the awful tedium he was willing to endure studying Russian transportation administration, truck design, native Siberian customs, merchant-ship work rules! It seems that, like masses of realistic detail in a painting, this sense of the pile of research behind the book is in part what assures the consumer that he (mostly he’s, I bet) is getting his money’s worth.
The cumulative force of the details does result in a wholly convincing–solid rather than brilliant–mise-en-scene. And the tale drives inexorably forward, each improvisation taking Porter closer to the Russian, Rogachev. At last (in Rogachev’s underground library full of priceless art and vintage wines, like Captain Nemo’s cabin) Porter is told the secret he has come for. Presumably a review ought not to reveal what it is, though in fact it could have been anything, and the science, unlike the details of labor and machinery, is hurried through and not convincing; not only Nemo but H.G. Wells and older scientific romances are brought to mind.
Then the exit, during which the Russians come at last to understand what is up, and move to stop the fleeing Porter. A reader who loves thrillers tells me that they should become by the end so gripping they cannot be put down–that this visceral reaction is not merely a reviewer’s exaggeration–and I did put this one down, a couple of times, even as the now really exhausted Porter evades the rapidly closing net. But the endgame was beautifully constructed, and Porter’s sudden understanding of how he can escape was a marvel of rightness.
Only a reader who knows the genre would recognize choice qualities or comparative failures in the book that are particular to its kind; a non-player tends rather to notice things that are unlike other kinds of books: for instance the lack, which would be fatal to an ordinary novel, of any real moral or emotional or aesthetic connection between the searcher and what he seeks for. The possibilities for building such a connection are there, and they might have been put in intentionally; but unlike the solidly contrived effects of driving, working, lying and escaping, they are left to evanesce.