Lionel Davidson surely deserves a bit of a renaissance. With two titles in the CWA’s 1990 list of the top 100 crime and thriller novels, he ranks alongside John Le Carré, and outranks Ian Fleming; The Sun Chemist is at number 88 in the CWA chart. Davidson won the CWA’s Gold Dagger three times and also won the Diamond Dagger for lifetime achievement in 2001. I reviewed his 1960 debut The Night of Wenceslas a few years ago and found it immensely readable if not, perhaps, worthy of classic status. Now for The Sun Chemist…
It is 1974. Igor Druyanov is an impoverished professional historian, author of a mildly successful study of the political strife of the 1930s, and currently living between London and Israel and working on volumes 15 and 16 of the Chaim Weizmann Papers.
Chaim Weizmann (as I rather shamefully had to turn to Wikipedia to discover – what can I tell you, they give you History degrees in boxes of cornflakes) was one the founding fathers of the state of Israel and became its first President in 1949. He was also an astonishingly capable chemist, and pioneered some vitally important fermentation processes whilst Director of the British Admiralty laboratories in WWI.
The story is split between a rather dismal UK and, by way of contrast, the lovely Israeli campus of Rehovot University, Weizmann’s final home. Our hero Igor leads something of a double life: shabby academic drudgery and an English girlfriend in London; sunny high-life and an academic lover in Israel.
Igor has been assigned Weizmann’s wilderness years, when in the mid-1930s, he was temporarily forced out of politics by a younger generation, and returned to the UK to set up a laboratory. Igor’s focus is mainly the reading and indexing of thousands of letters (Weizmann was an unstoppable correspondent). It all seems rather dull. However, it turns out that somewhere in these letters there is some vitally important information.
On his deathbed (and I assume this part is fictional), Weizmann seems to have arrived at an inspired idea for manufacturing a petrol substitute out of sweet potatoes. This is 1974, a year after the Oil Crisis precipitated by US involvement in the Yom Kippur War. A petrol substitute would be very useful.
Based on some flimsy clues in the transcript of his last words, it looks like the key to Weizmann’s discovery lies in his wilderness years in Britain. Some inspired deductions and a bit of detective work by Igor seem to put Weizmann’s idea within reach, but a few pieces of the jigsaw remain. It genuinely seems as though the fate of the world lies in his ability to trace some long-forgotten lab books lying somewhere in the north of England.
The Sun Chemist is packaged as a thriller, but for a thriller, there is very little action. Of course there are other parties interested in Weizmann’s discovery, but any peril seems very distant and rather academic – a friend of Igor’s is sloshed on the head but recovers swiftly – until the final few chapters, which are occupied by a tense night-time chase through Rehovot and Jerusalem, and a spot of swimming. Until then, most of Igor’s heroism lies in following a paper trail. I note that Davidson’s Guardian obituary says:
Davidson chose the international thriller form, without being submerged by it. He was happy to acknowledge that his “thrillers” had few overt thrills.
So this is a quiet thriller, but it has the almost-real-historical-fact appeal of a Frederick Forsyth, and is very engaging.
Guardian obituary for Lionel Davidson: Graham Greene called Lionel Davidson, who has died aged 87, the first contemporary storyteller to have recaptured the high adventure of Rider Haggard, while Rebecca West once said he was a young Kipling.
Telegraph obituary for Lionel Davidson: Davidson was considered something of a maverick; his output was small – only eight adult novels in all – and difficult to classify. While usually labelled thrillers, his novels dealt with espionage, mystery, history and adventure, interwoven with serious social commentary, and were sometimes very funny.
Reading in Reykjavik: Unfortunately I couldn’t get into the story. I read about half the book before Easter and then kept putting it aside in favour of other books, simply because I found it long-winded and even rather boring at times. Possibly a big part of it was the first-person narrative. I found Igor to be an uninteresting character, and therefore I found his first-person narrative boring. I even found myself skimming over the detailed final chase sequence, which, while admittedly atmospheric, was too wordy.