The Night of Wenceslas: Book Review
The Night of Wenceslas was written by Lionel Davidson and published in 1960. It was Davidson’s début novel and won several awards including the Crime Writer’s Association Gold Dagger. Davidson went on to have a successful career, writing many bestselling espionage and adventure thrillers.
The Night of Wenceslas: Logline
In 1950s Britain, a young man is forced into acting as a courier of secret information from communist Czechoslovakia. In Prague he discovers he has been double-crossed, and tries to escape to the British embassy, pursued by the Czech secret police.
The Night of Wenceslas: Plot Summary
Warning: My reviews include spoilers. Major spoilers are blacked out like this [blackout]secret[/blackout]. To view them, just select/highlight them.
It’s the late nineteen-fifties in London. Nicholas Whistler is a debonaire but penniless young man with a rich uncle who has promised to make Whistler the heir to his business. Whistler also has a girlfriend, Maura, who has been pressuring him to earn more so they can get married.
Whistler receives a letter from and then meets with a solicitor called Cunliffe. Cunliffe tells Whistler that the uncle has died and he is now rich. He asks Whistler to sign some documents and then advances him £200, which Whistler quickly spends.
Whistler returns for a further advance. Cunliffe tells him that the story about the uncle was a lie and in fact the document was a loan agreement. He offers to forgive the loan and pay Whistler a further £200 if he travels to communist Czechoslovakia and engages in some simple espionage. All Whistler needs to do is ‘lose’ his travel guide whilst touring a glass factory. Some secret information will be hidden in the book, it will be returned to him, and then he should bring it back to Britain.
Whistler goes to Czechoslovakia. There, as well as touring glass factories and arranging to lose his travel guide and retrieve it, he meets a statuesque Czech woman, Vlasta. They become lovers, but then Whistler abandons her to return to England.
Soon after his return, Cunliffe offers to pay Whistler more to repeat the voyage. Whistler agrees. Just as he leaves, and to his consternation, Maura gives him a travel guide identical to the one from Cunliffe.
All goes smoothly until, returning to his hotel, Whistler is offered a beer by a hotel waiter. Already tipsy he doesn’t drink it, but lies down to sleep. A few minutes later he is woken by the waiter snooping through his belongings. Whistler realises the beer must have been drugged. But the waiter has Maura’s travel guide and so can’t find the information he is looking for. Whistler pretends to wake, sends the waiter downstairs on an errand and retrieves the slip of paper hidden in the other travel guide.
Reading the information, Whistler realises he has been duped. [blackout]The slip of paper has information on British nuclear weapons on it. He has carried information out of Britain not into it.[/blackout] In a panic Whistler destroys the slip of paper and runs from the hotel. He phones the British embassy but the caretaker tells him they have all gone home for the evening. Calming down, and thinking that as the waiter failed to find the information in Maura’s travel guide he may be in the clear, Whistler decides to go back to the hotel. But waiting in his room are the Czech secret police…
The secret police [blackout]arrest Whistler, but he escapes, disguised as a waiter. He spends hours walking up and down Wenceslas Square which is sealed off by the police. Desperate, he knocks out a food vendor and takes his place, steals his papers and uses them to escape. Trying to reach the British Embassy again he somehow ends up back at the square. He finds a corner and goes to sleep.[/blackout]
In the morning, Whistler [blackout]goes to an open air swimming pool and steals some clothes from one of the other bathers. He phones Vlasta and asks if he can come to her house. She is welcoming, but Whistler realises she has knowledge she could not have unless she was working for the secret police. He runs again, hides in a cellar all night and then knocks out a milkman and disguises himself to get past the secret police and into the British Embassy.[/blackout]
After [blackout]months of debriefing, Whistler is flown back to Britain. He asks Maura to marry him and move to Canada, where his uncle has offered him a place in the firm.[/blackout]
The Night of Wenceslas: Analysis
The Night of Wenceslas has a Mission plot, with elements of an On The Run plot (see Spy Novel Plots). The first half is a mission, although an unusual one in that Whistler is forced into it. Like Hannay in The Thirty-Nine Steps, Whistler in The Night of Wenceslas is an amateur mixed up in a plot he doesn’t understand. Unlike Hannay though, Whistler is reluctant, terrified and not very competent.
After the twist, The Night of Wenceslas becomes an On The Run story, with Whistler trying to reach the British Embassy before the Czech secret police can arrest him. Like Hannay, Whistler manages to find hidden resources within himself once forced to flee.
In The Night of Wenceslas, Whistler realises he has been double-crossed because he finds the information he has been carrying, which is in plain English. This is extremely unlikely – vital information is enciphered before transmission, precisely because it may fall into the wrong hands. Soviet-bloc spies used the one-time-pad system, which is theoretically unbreakable, to encrypt all communications.
Although The Night of Wenceslas is not a comedy, it has a lot of wry humour. The protagonist narrates in the first person, and his asides and comments are one of the main things that make him a great character. He is is in turn sardonic, sarcastic and ironic, and sharp comments like his description of Czechs as ‘hands and brains’ (based on a poster in Wenceslas Square exhorting “Every Hand, Every Brain, for the Building of Socialism”) keep the reader entertained.
There are also some farcical moments in The Night of Wenceslas, such as the confusion over the two guide books. There’s also some rather convenient implausibilities and glossing over of unpleasantness, such as what happens to the minor characters. The spy plot itself resolves rather easily in the end – giving the book a slightly lightweight feel.
Essentially, The Night of Wenceslas is wish fulfilment – what penniless young man wouldn’t want to get mixed up in a spy plot with a beautiful foreigner in a glamorous city with a frisson of danger – but wish fulfilment is no bad thing when done well, as it is here.
Reality: Knocking People Out
In The Night of Wenceslas, Whistler knocks out several people by hitting them over the head with a lead pipe, and even a hammer. This is inevitably both successful and non-lethal. To say the least this is not very realistic. In reality, there is a very fine line between failing to render someone unconscious and inflicting traumatic brain injury. Anyone rendered unconscious for the length of time Whistler manages would be severely injured and in the case of the man hit with a hammer potentially killed.
The Night of Wenceslas: The Movie
The Night of Wenceslas was filmed in 1964 as a comedy called Hot Enough for June (retitled Agent 8¾ in the USA). It starred Dirk Bogarde as Whistler and Sylva Koscina as Vlasta. Hot Enough for June shares the basic plot of The Night of Wenceslas but is much changed, with Whistler being sent to Prague by British Intelligence, the focus being on the romance between Whistler and Vlasta and many other alterations. It is not successful, because while being too light-hearted to be taken seriously as a thriller it simply isn’t funny enough to work as an out-and-out comedy.
Here’s the trailer:
The Night of Wenceslas: My Verdict
A light-hearted thriller with a superb central character. Great fun.
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