Kolymsky Heights. A Siberian permafrost hell lost in endless night, the perfect setting for an underground Russian research station. It's a place so secret it doesn't officially exist; once there, the scientists are forbidden to leave. But one scientist is desperate to get a message to the outside world. So desperate, he sends a plea across the wildness to the West in order to summon the one man alive capable of achieving the impossible
Welcome to the second in my series of favourite books which I’ll be reviewing over the summer. Lionel Davidson’s Kolymsky Heightsis one those books which I, although I hestitate to say it, would put in the ‘best you’ve never heard of’ category. I know that’s a cliché but it’s how it was described to me when I was first given it to read in 2008, the person who gave it me probably had the same conversation with the person who gave it to them and so forth. After reading Kolymsky Heights the first time I didn’t disagree
The novel begins with a Prologue which appears to be a letter written by an unnamed Russian scientist to an old acquaintance. The scientist tells the story of how he came to be head of a secret research facility in a remote part of Northern Siberia. A position from which he is never allowed to leave or even have contact with the outside world. If there is no contact with the outside world then how is it that he is able to tell his story, Kolymsky Heights is the much bigger story of how this feat was achieved.
The synopsis itself is fairly simple, a single man must enter a heavily restricted part Russia, then enter an even more heavily restricted research facility, extract the required information and return safely to the west. It’s a classic quest story and Kolymsky Heights has been compared to John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, I personally think it’s closer to Greenmantle, the second of Buchan’s Richard Hannay novels than it is to The Thirty-Nine Steps. Instead of Richard Hannay as the civilian thrown into the deep end, in Kolymsky Heights we have Johnny Porter, a native Canadian Indian who has a gift for learning indigenous languages. He’s also not unexpectedly very resourceful and in a step too far he’s a bit like James Bond when it comes to seducing women.
The other important character of the story is not a human, it’s the deep frozen lightless Siberian winter. Kolymsky Heights is one of the best novels I’ve ever read in terms of capturing and using the sense of place to the advantage of the story. Finally, I should also mention the pacing of Kolymsky Heights. It is almost a master class in building and releasing tension, each time building the tension slightly higher until the last part of the novel when all that built up tension unleashes itself in a frenetic chase across Siberia.
Kolymsky Heights is a hugely enjoyable read and it really is one of the best thrillers I’ve ever read.