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Davidson, Lionel


Nationality: British. Born: Hull, Yorkshire, 31 March 1922. Military Service: Served in the Royal Naval Submarine Service, 1941-46. Family: Married 1) Fay Jacobs in 1949 (died 1988), two sons; 2) Frances Ullman in 1989. Career: Freelance magazine journalist and editor, 1946-59. Awards: Authors Club award, 1961; Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger, 1961, 1967, 1979. Agent: Curtis Brown, 28/29 Haymarket, London SW1Y 4SP, England.



The Night of Wenceslas. London, Gollancz, 1960; New York, Harper, 1961.

The Rose of Tibet. London, Gollancz, and New York, Harper, 1962.

A Long Way to Shiloh. London, Gollancz, 1966; as The Menorah Men, New York, Harper, 1966.

Making Good Again. London, Cape, and New York, Harper, 1968.

Smith's Gazelle. London, Cape, and New York, Knopf, 1971.

The Sun Chemist. London, Cape, and New York, Knopf, 1976.

The Chelsea Murders. London, Cape, 1978; as Murder Games, NewYork, Coward McCann, 1978.

Kolymsky Heights. London, Heinemann, and New York, St. Martin's, 1994.

Uncollected Short Stories

"Note to Survivors," in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine (NewYork), May 1958.

"Where Am I Going? Nowhere!," in Suspense (London), February1961.

"Indian Rope Trick," in Winter's Crimes 13, edited by GeorgeHardinge. London, Macmillan, 1981.

"I Do Dwell," in Winter's Crimes 16, edited by Hilary Hale. London, Macmillan, 1984.

Fiction (for children) as David Line

Soldier and Me. New York, Harper, 1965.

Run for Your Life. London, Cape, 1966.

Mike and Me. London, Cape, 1974.

Under Plum Lake (as Lionel Davidson). London, Cape, and NewYork, Knopf, 1980.

Screaming High. London, Cape, and Boston, Little Brown, 1985.

* * *

A novelist in various genres, Lionel Davidson has become most widely known as a writer of mysteries, winning the Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger, an annual prize, three different times. His mystery stories are intricate and full of social and historical detail. The Chelsea Murders (published as Murder Games in the United States), for example, uses clues drawn from 19th-century literary and pre-Raphaelite figures. Each of the seven victims has the initials of one of the luminaries who lived in Chelsea, figures like Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Oscar Wilde, and Algernon Charles Swinburne; the mass killer, like one of the victims, has the initials of the satirist W.S. Gilbert. In addition, the clues, mailed to the police through different ingenious guises, are quotations from the writers, emphasizing the novel's resemblance to an intricate game. No clue is, in itself, more relevant than any of the others. The Chelsea Murders is also, like much of Davidson's fiction, socially referential, containing quick depictions of London porno clubs, film-making, language lessons for the acculturation of Arabs, a gay disco, and a jeans store on the King's Road. Within his quickly shifting and often comic scenes, Davidson pays deference to traditional elements in crime fiction, the establishment of time frame, the police procedure, and the use of disguise to confuse identity, although he allows himself little space for the treatment of motive, psychology, or any interior quality. His characterizations, like his characters themselves, are likely to operate in groups, and the most common theme in the mysteries is that of betrayal, the violation by one member of the ethos, the standards, or the lives of other members of the group.

Other of Davidson's novels shade the line dividing the mystery from the novel of espionage. One espionage novel is Making Good Again in which three lawyers in the 1960s, an Englishman, a German, and an Israeli, combine in an effort to find a long-missing German-Jewish banker or to decide what to do with the million Swiss francs still left in his name. Using various costumes and guises as they travel through the Bavarian forest and other parts of Europe, and shifting allegiances to various governments and national interests, they constantly confront echoes of Nazi feeling and raise questions about German guilt and possible reparations for crimes against the Jews and the rest of humanity. Again, the theme is betrayal; but the notion of a new international combination of responsibilities cannot sustain itself in a plot that involves a good deal of action and adventure. Another novel, published as A Long Way to Shiloh in England and The Menorah Men in the United States, combines adventure with a depiction of Israel in the 1960s. This novel places the search for a religious symbol originally lost or stolen from the Temple at Jerusalem against a background of contemporary Israel trying to develop a national identity through current forms of economic, social, sexual, and religious behavior.

Davidson manifests a considerable range among fictional genres, almost never writing the same kind of novel twice. The Rose of Tibet is pure adventure and travelogue, evoking that strange and isolated land held in by mountains. Smith's Gazelle, with considerable delicacy and sensitivity, deals with the excitements and problems of preserving a nearly extinct herd of deer, working its implicit argument for conservation into suggestions of a mythic statement about the origins of species. Under Plum Lake is a fantasy for children in which a young boy discovers a whole subterranean civilization underneath a familiar lake. Different as they are in genre and setting, all Davidson's novels depend on action and adventure, externalizing their themes and concerns into a constant involvement with a difficult, various, and morally confusing contemporary world.

Davidson's moral statements, however, never become obvious or heavy-handed. His humor and games are always visible, his social commentary more a matter of reference to or passing jabs at contemporary social phenomena than any sustained social criticism or analysis. His references, too, like those in The Chelsea Murders, are often literary, historical, or topical, references to other works or quick echoes of other styles that make the novels, especially those like The Sun Chemist (about the possible existence among Chaim Weitzmann's forgotten papers of a chemical formula that will free the world's industry from its dependence on Arab oil), sound derivative. Kolymsky Heights, Davidson's first thriller after a 16-year silence, plays on familiar themespost-Cold War espionage involving the old superpower foes, a rough-and-tumble hero who must steal a secret from a remote basebut adds fresh details: for instance, the hero, Johnny Porter, is a Gitskan Indian from British Columbia.

Davidson has, as a novelist, not yet developed a strong or distinctive literary identity, but his protean skill, his deftness, his humor, and the excitement of the action and cleverness visible in all his novels, along with settings that always illustrate a responsiveness to the contemporary social and political world, have earned him a considerable and growing reputation.

James Gindin

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