The Night of Wenceslas by Lionel Davidson

This hugely enjoyable spy adventure feels like a sixties update of John Buchan’s ‘man-on-the-run’ classic The Thirty-Nine Steps – first-class escapism for our constricted times. I devoured it in a handful of sittings.

As in Buchan’s 1915 ‘shocker’ Lionel Davidson’s debut novel starts with a narrator who is bored with life in London before unfolding events test his appetite for excitement. As we might expect from a thriller set at the onset of the Swinging Sixties, there’s more sex in The Night of Wenceslas, more enlightened attitudes (none of the casual anti-semitism found in The Thirty-Nine Steps) and a giddy sense of emerging freedom.

Davidson’s crisp and witty prose style is a delight and his more colourful characters such as Vlasta, a voluptuous giantess with “bomb-like” breasts, anticipate Pussy Galore et al from Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels: “I watched her leave with a somewhat mixed and fearful anticipation. She was certainly a lot of girl.”

Just as Hitchcock added a female lead and sexual tension to his 1935 film version of The Thirty-Nine Steps, Davidson blows away the cobwebs of convention. His snowballing plot is alive with an intoxicating sense of new horizons, of hidden talents in his characters. Perhaps the most exhilarating part of reading The Night of Wenceslas is the transformation of feckless waster Nicolas Whistler into someone who can do stuff, a man of action, if not exactly an Action Man. If he can be brave, we think to ourselves, then maybe we can. Maybe we’re all better than we think.

In both books a secret message is of crucial importance. Scudder’s notebook contains a code that could avert a world war: Richard Hannay must stay free to fight for our freedom; he must outrun and outwit the British police and the German spies of the Black Stone. The stakes do not appear to be so high in The Night of Wenceslas: Nicolas Whistler ends up as an unlikely spy in Cold War Prague, the bearer of a cigarette paper with a formula written on it that might avert a nuclear war. He, too, is hunted down relentlessly by a shadowy organisation – the Czech state security police or SNB (Statni Narodni Bezpecnost).

Both protagonists are forced into situations where they must become quick-change artists. In The Thirty-Nine Steps Hannay dons the guise of a roadman; he also gives an election speech as a Liberal candidate. To evade the clutches of the SNB Whistler becomes a ‘parky’ sausage seller, later dressing up in Czech national costume after claiming a stranger’s clothes at a swimming bath. Both men disguise themselves as milkmen to escape enemy pursuers.

But Hannay and Whistler are very different characters, products of their time. The former is older, an ex-soldier and mining engineer in South Africa. He is a tough, worldly-wise, a professional adventurer. Whistler is a rather aimless and lazy boy-about-town who cares most about his MG sports car. Hannay’s quest is more obviously heroic, while Whistler’s nightmarish journey is mostly navigated and motivated via the instinct for self-preservation.

He might be selfish, but Davidson’s character is the more likeable, flawed hero. He’s droll and smarter than he thinks, and we enjoy his coming-of-age in The Night of Wenceslas. Whistler’s rebellious individualism feels like part of a cultural shift:

“It should be obvious I didn’t care about the formula. Why should I care about it with my life at stake? There was some great mass delusion in this insane country. They all thought alike. Maybe this was how their own nationals would behave. Hanging on at all costs to the formula, the slogan, the message, the chant.”

The times they are a-changin’: for Nicolas Whistler (and Lionel Davidson) the sixties’ counter-culture starts here.