The genius of Lionel Davidson

One of my favourite novelists died Oct. 21 at the age of 87, and it took a while before the news reached me: The British-Israeli Lionel Davidson was relatively unknown on this side of the pond, so there were no prominent obituaries or fond recollective write-ups of his extraordinary novels in the Canadian media.

I was first introduced to Davidson, a three-time winner of the Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger, decades ago by a fellow bibliomane with a penchant for English writers. She pressed Davidson's second novel, The Rose of Tibet (1962) on me, assuring me that once I picked it up, I would not put it down until it was finished. And so it proved. Novelist Graham Greene said Davidson was the first contemporary storyteller to recreate the high adventure of Rider Haggard. Throw in a little Kipling, varnish with one coat of a more humorous and politically neutral John le Carre, and you have the general idea.

I never read a Davidson book I didn't find completely absorbing, but sadly there weren't as many as I'd have liked. Sometimes years would go by before a new one appeared. His last, Kolymsky Heights, a thriller set in the frozen reaches of Siberia (with a Canadian connection -- the hero, Johnny Porter, is a Gitskan Indian from British Columbia), was a happy surprise after a 16-year absence from the literary scene, during which I had concluded that Davidson had died or stopped writing altogether.

Davidson's complex and nuanced plots are the work of a brilliant mind; all are liberally invested with proofs of Davidson's literary and historical erudition. He wrote with precision and with a tone of such calm realism that his wildly improbable plots came off as perfectly believable.

His action scenes are nonpareil. The hero's long scramble to safety with his faithful Tibetan companion in The Rose of Tibet, which occupies the last third of the novel, is rendered with unrelenting suspense, and a grippingly detailed command of the landscape no reader can ever forget, all the more remarkably since Davidson had never been there.

Most crime and spy writers stake out a particular territory they are familiar with. Davidson was all over the map, from Tibet to London to the Bavarian forests of Germany to Russia and to many settings in Israel.

His plots are the main attraction. Yet, while characterization of individual protagonists is not deep, their complex predicaments and the ingenuity with which they resolve them give them originality and presence beyond their literary two-dimensionality.

My favourite Davidson book, and the one I recommend most frequently, is Smith's Gazelle, an adventure story set in a hidden ravine in southern Israel. On the surface, the plot concerns the perilous near-extinction of an exquisite species of gazelle (named after a British zoologist, Smith, who discovered the breed), but at a deeper level envisages a kind of utopian safe place -- a deep ravine where the gazelle runs for haven from Bedouin hunters -- in which Israeli and Arab can meet and find peaceful common ground in a redemptive project.

In this book, which begins shortly before the Six Day War of 1967, Jonathan, a nine-year old runaway boy from a nearby kibbutz, and Musallem, a Bedouin boy searching for his missing father, find each other in the ravine. They have been acculturated to mistrust and even hate each other. But the fragile rebirth of the gazelle flock, casts a magic spell over the boys. As the endangered species begins to replicate and flourish, they set aside their hostility and learn to work together.

The herd of gazelle is tended to by an old Bedu shepherd, Hamud. His wife had been murdered in an honour killing by her brother for the crime of adultery. But the ugly Hamud, grateful to have had a wife at all, had known of her infidelity and had not cared. So he in turn killed her brother and father, an act proscribed by tribal retribution codes. An outcast, he finds the ravine and his true vocation, a holy task for Allah in his mind, in working with the gazelle.

The book is enthralling, although not in any conventional sense a thriller.

Davidson brings the crazy old shepherd Hamud to life from the inside. There is a deep familarity here with Bedouin culture and, as well, an obvious intimacy with kibbutz life and the Israeli mindset.

Beyond the obvious allegorical themes I have described, there is no ideological or political subtext here. Smith's Gazelle is simply a great story, briskly narrated, beautifully crafted. But because it deals with the most tragically insoluble territorial situation and the most diametrically opposed cultural perspectives on the planet, the novel punches far above its moral and philosophical weight. If your holiday book bag isn't quite full yet, slip in a Davidson. I promise you won't regret it.