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Sunday 30 November 2008

Smith and Houston.

One of the first thriller writers I ever read was Lionel Davidson, whose books, I am delighted to say, have now all been collected and reissued by Faber and Faber. The covers are rather pale and demure, ‘classical’ in a wreathed 18th Century way rather than ‘classic’ but the main thing is they are there.

Lionel Davidson is a classy popular writer - not limited to one genre - and his versatility and powers of invention may not have worked entirely to the advantage of his reputation. There are some writers who write to a formula or a fantasy and do so again and again and again, certainly from a marketing point of view a coherent strategy. You know what you are going to get.

Lionel Davidson is not like that. I’d guess that, having tried one angle he wanted new challenges. I think The Chelsea Murders is his only crime novel.

My own favourites amongst his books are The Rose of Tibet and Smith’s Gazelle. Both are beautifully constructed and resolved. But I know people who prefer his first book, The Night of Wenceslas, and the tremendous selling A long way to Shiloh (US The Menorah Men.) I think there was a film version of that first book, with Dirk Bogarde, but I am not aware of other movies. Most would be difficult to film.

But, in one sense, the book of his I find most persistent is called Making Good Again. It was published in 1968 and is set against the background of German Reparations for Nazi Atrocities. It involves the legal and social aftermath to the Second World War, the concept that a government can sign up for guilt, but that a population can grow fatigued and begin to doubt an ideal rather than a realistic judicial process – most of us know that reparations may be pursued but, even if they are successful, will always emphasise what is irrecoverable, and often leave absolutely untouched those who see nothing to apologise for.

What I admire is Davidson’s effort to make accessible an historical reality in which present agendas and appetites cloud attempts to fix the past.

Can a popular book deal with historical complexities without simplistic resolutions, and still provide the kind of satisfactions a thriller/adventure/mystery reader wants? Honestly? It’s really tricky, particularly if the subject matter deals with the power and cruelty inherent in some fantasies.

The attraction of Lionel Davidson is that he is not vengeful - no ‘I am the law’ stuff - but almost always ingenious. The thrill is in the curiosity, research and energy he brings to his novels. At his best he stretches the narrative lines with wit and the kind of tension that delights.

If you haven’t read him before – try now.

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