Book review: The Night of Wenceslas by Lionel Davidson

When Lionel Davidson's debut novel, The Night of Wenceslas, was published in 1960, it was met with instant critical acclaim and won him the Crime Writers' Association's Gold Dagger Award.

Monday, 4th July 2016, 10:00 am
The Night of Wenceslas byLionel Davidson
The Night of Wenceslas byLionel Davidson

A nail-biting Cold War thriller, which blends an intriguing and stylish plot with moments of satirical comedy, the book was subsequently filmed as Hot Enough For June starring Dirk Bogarde, Robert Morley and Leo McKern, and was the start of a long and distinguished writing career for Davidson who died in 2009 aged 87.

Described by Jake Kerridge of The Telegraph as ‘the best spy novelist you might never have read,’ Davidson’s brilliant spy thrillers, which include The Rose of Tibet and Kolymsky Heights, have been lost to a generation of readers but are now being revived and republished by Faber & Faber.

The Night of Wenceslas, which stars a penniless, disillusioned and amorous young man from London who becomes unwillingly caught up in a perilous espionage plot in his old Czechoslovakian homeland, is a glorious introduction to Davidson’s classic books.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Twenty-four-year-old Nicolas Whistler, half-English and half-Czech, is dissolute and bored, living a life of dull monotony in London.

He hates his job in his late father’s glass-making business where he works under the detested Karel Nimek, or ‘the Little Swine’ as Nicolas likes to call him, eking out the days in anticipation of becoming a full partner at some point in the future.

Meanwhile, he dreams of inheriting untold riches from his Uncle Bela in Vancouver, so when he is informed by a lawyer called Stephen Cunliffe that his uncle has finally died and left him a fortune of £140,000, he immediately blows the £200 that has been forwarded to him from the estate.

However, Uncle Bela is still alive, Cunliffe is a moneylender and Nicolas has been duped. The only way he can discharge the debt, he is told, is by carrying out a simple assignment in Communist Prague.

But the business trip is a cover, Nicolas is a ‘patsy’ and his activities in Prague soon drag him deep into the dangerous world of Cold War espionage and the battle for atomic supremacy. Trapped between the secret police and the amorous clutches of the mysterious and statuesque Vlasta Simenova, Nicolas must face the fact that he is now a spy, whether he likes it or not...

Fast-paced and laced with an addictive brand of sardonic humour, The Night of Wenceslas is both an edge-of-the-seat thriller and an enjoyable romp as we watch Nicolas mature from hapless dupe to unexpected action hero.

Original, totally absorbing and wonderfully entertaining, this is the perfect introduction to the work of an ingenious author.

(Faber, paperback, £8.99)