Lionel Davidson


Born: 31 March, 1922, in Hull, Yorkshire.

Died: 21 October, 2009, in London, aged 87.

Lionel Davidson was a noted thriller writer whose novels brought to life far-flung settings such as Prague, Tibet, Israel and Siberia.

Davidson wrote eight novels for adults, among them Night of Wenceslas (1960) and Kolymsky Heights (1994), as well as several novels for young people. All eight of his adult novels are being reissued by Faber & Faber.

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

Davidson's first novel, Night of Wenceslas, is strongly comic. It centres 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.

One reviewer called it a "an icy marvel of invention", adding: "Mr 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 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 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 Davidson was a freelance journalist with the Keystone Press Agency, reporting from various European locales, including Prague. In the Second World War he served in the Far East as a Royal Navy submariner.

For about a decade in the 1960s and 70s, Davidson and his family lived in Israel, a country that figures centrally in three of his adult novels. In A Long Way to Shiloh (1966) an archaeologist hunts for a precious candelabrum from the Holy Land. In Smith's Gazelle (1971), a Bedouin shepherd tends a flock of rare gazelles during the Six-Day War. The Sun Chemist (1976) involves the quest for a precious formula among the papers of Chaim Weizmann, the first president of Israel and a research chemist.

Davidson's other adult novels are Making Good Again (1968), about German reparations after the Holocaust; The Rose of Tibet (1962), about the search for a vanished Englishman; and The Chelsea Murders (1978), a literary puzzle mystery. (The novel features a series of victims who share initials with writers including Algernon Charles Swinburne and Oscar Wilde.)

His juvenile novels include Under Plum Lake (1980), written under his own name, and several others written under the pen name David Line.

Davidson was a three-time winner of the Gold Dagger Award, presented by the Crime Writers' Association. In 2001 he received the association's Cartier Diamond Dagger for lifetime achievement. Despite his success, he never much enjoyed the act of writing, a sentiment he expressed in an interview with the Times in 1994. "It's like getting into a boxing ring," he said, "and taking a really good hiding."

Davidson's first wife, the former Fay Jacobs, died in 1988. He is survived by his second wife, the former Frances Ullman, as well as two sons from his first marriage, a brother and a sister.

&#149 Our obituary of Dan Buglass (2 November) said he married Jane Fleming. In fact his wife's maiden name was Dodd.