Lionel Davidson Essay - Critical Essays


Lionel Davidson’s fiction is characterized by its wit and ingenuity. The main characters of his thrillers and mystery novels quickly enter a world of circumstance that tests their mental and physical prowess. Many of the novels are propelled forward by, first, the perplexing mysteries and, second, the protagonists’ subsequent action-packed flight from danger. Davidson gracefully fuses an intellectually engaging mystery—which often involves some form of scholarship—with sparkling action. Davidson’s interest in scholarship is also suggested by the fact that his novels are well researched. Finally, humor and irony add another dimension to much of his fiction.

The Night of Wenceslas

The Night of Wenceslas, written from the viewpoint of a self-centered, spoiled young Englishman, Nicholas Whistler, plots his journey to a vividly described Prague and his subsequent flight from the communist secret police. Through a complicated set of circumstances, Whistler is tricked by a man into unwittingly passing or almost passing state secrets. After sleeping with a giant Czech woman with “twin luscious bombs” and being pursued by the Czech police, he manages to enter the British embassy dressed as a milk delivery person.

A Long Way to Shiloh

A Long Way to Shiloh is also written in the first person; the main character, Caspar Laing, who likes to drink, has an affair with a young Yemenite woman who is engaged to someone else. Soon after he meets Shoshana, Laing thinks to himself, “Hadn’t this girl been demonstrating some rather over-matey solidarity with me of late?” Thus Davidson conveys the young Englishman’s carefree attitude through his tone and diction.

The novel also has an engaging plot. Set in modern Israel, it considers the nation’s preoccupation with its ancient history. Laing is a renowned young scholar employed by an Israeli archaeologist to help locate an ancient menorah—to which a scroll fragment alludes—before the Jordanians find it. After following numerous faulty leads and barely escaping death at the hands of Arabs, Laing concludes that the menorah is likely to be buried in the middle of a construction site for a vast hotel. Because he fails to prevail over the developer, Laing cannot continue the search. Ironically, a council of rabbis concludes that a library should be constructed in the hotel in the exact area in question. Much of the novel is devoted to Laing’s efforts to decipher the fragment and interpret its meaning. Because he cannot pursue his final lead, the novel thereby ends somewhat inconclusively.

The Rose of Tibet

The Rose of Tibet is even more indefinite. By placing the main story within a framing plot, Davidson cleverly renders it suspect. Two stories are presented, one involving high adventure in Tibet and the other—one that is quite rarefied—recounting the story of an editor’s effort to get in touch with an author. Charles Houston, an Englishman, has supposedly written an account of his search for his brother in Tibet, his journey through the Himalayas, his affair with a priestess, his own deification by the people, and his flight from the approaching Chinese army. Because the editor is unable to contact Houston (who has been the subject of several newspaper articles), Davidson’s reader is confronted with the possibility that an elderly Latin teacher—who passed the manuscript to the editor—actually wrote the narrative himself. It may not have been, as he claims, material that was dictated to him by Houston.

The novel opens with a prologue in which Davidson himself appears as an editor of a publishing company. It closes with the editor’s failure to resolve the mystery of Houston’s whereabouts and thus the identity of the manuscript’s author. Between the opening and ending lie pages of thrilling adventure through the Himalayas. In concise prose, somewhat like Ernest Hemingway’s, Davidson describes the inexperienced Houston’s fight for survival. At one point, “he tried to eat wood and leaves. He boiled them to make a soup. The soup was bitter . . . and it merely made him vomit. He had to stop quickly, for he could not afford to waste what he had already eaten.”

The Sun Chemist

A scholar’s work preparing an edition of a famous man’s...

(The entire section is 1789 words.)