I found this recently in the bargain box outside Turret House, the second-hand bookshop/B&B/antique scientific instrument emporium on Middleton Street in Wymondham, Norfolk. They have an eclectic business model but I like it.
Lionel Davidson is an author I was only aware of because he turned up in the CWA top 100 with The Rose of Tibet. His Wikipedia entry describes a very promising start to his career, and the pleasantly lo-fi cover of this edition boasts ‘Best Thriller of its Year (Crime Critics’ Award)’ and ‘Best First Novel of its Year (Authors’ Club Award)’. His obscurity today may be due to his long career hiatus following three very successful novels in the 60s.
Nicolas Whistler is the impecunious hero of The Night of Wenceslas. Nicolas’ father established a successful glass company in Czechoslovakia, which is now in decline following years of mismanagement by its current MD, ‘The Little Swine’. The shares left to Nicolas by his father are essentially worthless, and he is unable to manage on the small salary allowed him by the Swine. He is behind on his rent, in debt to his garage (he runs an expensive red MG), and borrows money from his girlfriend Maura. All this changes when he receives a note:
With regard to the estate of the late Mr Bela Janda, I should be glad if you would telephone this office to arrange an early appointment.
Yours faithfully, Stephen Cunliffe
Uncle Bela is the family’s success story, a Czech emigré with a successful business in Canada, and Nicolas has always expected to inherit his fortune. Cunliffe lends Nicolas some money on account, and it is there that his troubles begin. Before long, for reasons I won’t share here, he has been sent to Prague on a mission to steal the secret of a glass-manufacturing process.
This, of course, is Communist-era Prague: ‘Every hand, every brain, for the building of socialism’. If you have read The Man Who Went Up in Smoke by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, the territory will seem familiar. Davidson is not as openly condemnatory of Communism as you might expect, but treats life under the regime with a wry humour. A lovingly described Prague makes a wonderful backdrop for the action.
This is an espionage story, but a light-hearted one. There are mix-ups concerning the Norstrund guide-book Nicolas uses to smuggle out secrets. There is quite a bit of knocking people out. There are comedy disguises. Nicolas’ romantic entanglement with his driver Vlasta Simenova (‘Her bomb-like breasts rose and fell profoundly’) is a study in schoolboyish 1960s British sexuality.
As with most effective thrillers, the tension arises from simple situations: the need to get out of a particular street without being seen, the need to find a place to sleep or something to eat, the need to change one’s clothes for something less conspicuous. For a self-confessed coward, Nicolas copes very well.
‘There is something about coshing a man for the first time that inspires a certain wild but unstable confidence. One minute you are faced with a powerful and unnerving obstacle; the next, without thought or subtlety, you have overcome it.’
This an undemanding and enjoyable read. I can see why it was popular, but perhaps not why it was critically successful (unless it has hidden depths not accessible to me).
The Night of Wenceslas was filmed as Hot Enough for June, starring Dirk Bogarde and Robert Morley. Again according to Wikipedia, ‘Bogarde was informed by his manager that he needed the money and he decided to play the role’. The entire film is on YouTube.
Final destination: Green Metropolis
Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.