Lionel Davidson, 87; wrote popular thrillers in Britain

By Margalit Fox
New York Times / November 2, 2009

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NEW YORK - Lionel Davidson, a noted British thriller writer whose novels brought to life far-flung settings like Prague, Tibet, Israel, and Siberia, died Oct. 21 at his home in London. He was 87.

The cause was lung cancer, his son Nick said.

Mr. Davidson, who published sparingly, was less well known in the United States than in Britain, where his books were commercial and critical successes. He wrote eight novels for adults, among them “Night of Wenceslas’’ and “Kolymsky Heights’’, as well as several novels for young people. All eight of Mr. Davidson’s adult novels are being reissued in Britain and the United States by Faber & Faber.

Often likened to the work of Graham Greene and H. Rider Haggard, Mr. Davidson’s novels defy easy genre classification. Though usually labeled thrillers, they range over espionage, mystery, history, and adventure. They entail serious social commentary but are sprinkled liberally with wit. Critics praised his swift plotting, erudition, and evocative local color.

Mr. Davidson’s first novel, “Night of Wenceslas,’’ was originally published in Britain in 1960. Strongly comic, it centers on a hapless Englishman’s reluctant spying trip to Czechoslovakia during the Cold War. The novel was made into a 1964 film, “Hot Enough for June,’’ starring Dirk Bogarde.

His last novel, “Kolymsky Heights,’’ involves an American agent’s quest for a secret locked in the Siberian ice. Its unusual protagonist, Johnny Porter, is a linguist, a scholar, a spy, and a Gitxsan Indian from British Columbia.

Reviewing “Kolymsky Heights’’ in The New York Times Book Review, James Carroll called it “an icy marvel of invention,’’ adding: “It is written with the panache of a master and with the wide-eyed exhilaration of an adventurer in the grip of discovery. Davidson has not only rescued one of the most familiar narrative forms of the era, the spy thriller; he has also renewed it.’’

Lionel Davidson was born in Hull, in Yorkshire, and moved with his family to London as a youth. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Lithuania; the family name was originally Davidovitz.

As a teenager he worked as an office boy for the magazine The Spectator, where his duties included fetching tea and opening the pile of short stories submitted to the fiction editor. One day he slipped in a story of his own, written pseudonymously. The magazine published it.

During the 1940s and ’50s Mr. Davidson was a freelance journalist with the Keystone Press Agency, reporting from various European locales, including Prague. In World War II he served in the Far East as a Royal Navy submariner.

Mr. Davidson’s first wife, the former Fay Jacobs, died in 1988. He leaves his second wife, the former Frances Ullman; two sons from his first marriage, Philip and Nick; a brother, Cyril; and a sister, Minnie Robbins.

For about a decade in the ’60s and ’70s, Mr. Davidson and his family lived in Israel, a country that figures centrally in three of his adult novels. In “A Long Way to Shiloh’’ - published in the United States as “The Menorah Men’’ - an archeologist hunts for a precious candelabrum from the Holy Land. In “Smith’s Gazelle,’’ a Bedouin shepherd tends a flock of rare gazelles during the Six-Day War. “The Sun Chemist’’ involves the quest for a precious formula among the papers of Chaim Weizmann, the first president of Israel and a research chemist.

Mr. Davidson’s other adult novels are “Making Good Again,’’ about German reparations after the Holocaust; “The Rose of Tibet,’’ about the search for a vanished Englishman; and “The Chelsea Murders,’’ a literary puzzle mystery published in the United States as “Murder Games.’’