Although I didn’t enjoy The Chelsea Murders much, I was determined to give Kolymsky Heights a go due to the warmth of its recommendation from Philip Pullman. Initial impressions emphasise that they are very different books – this is an international thriller, and the style is modern and spare (though slightly self consciously so), a far remove from the florid posturing of the contrived murder mystery. It is very immediate, though the one word sentence is a device he could have used more sparingly.
I thought this was a bit slow to get going, but I found myself rather suddenly deep in the story and really pretty interested in the outcomes. Something very odd is happening at a Russian research station in an area remote and inhospitable even by Siberian standards, and a message from a senior scientist there asks that someone from the West makes contact with him – clearly with information of great importance at stake. At first the resolution of the problem seems to centre on a withdrawn Oxford professor, various British and American intelligence agencies, and a Canadian-Indian with high academic standing but a turbulent and equivocal past politically.
In fact, it is the Canadian, Porter, who becomes the central character, and his attempt to get into – and out of – a top security zone in Russia is well told, although there is a fair amount of “look how much I know detail” along the way, unnecessary for plot or character development. But the tale moves along briskly (even if some of Porter’s skills seem a liitle unlikely for a man of his past), and there’s a dying man’s pride and a young man’s love at stake to increase the interest of the espionage story. Davidson is fond of a number of devices which impress at first but become wearisomely obvious after a while: he seems to make a definite statement, which implies that - for example, no plot spoilers here – that Porter has been captured in a bar, but which proves not to be true a few pages later – and then an ambiguity (sometimes slightly forced) in the original statement becomes clear.
So, I don’t rank this as highly as Pullman did – "The best thriller I've ever read, and I've read plenty. A solidly researched and bone-chilling adventure in a savage setting, with a superb hero" – but I do think it’s a perfectly good holiday read, or a piece of winter escapism, and the story has plenty of original and intriguing material. But it’s for those who like the genre already, I wouldn’t argue that it deserves the attention of every reader (as I would with Le Carré, for example).