Top mysteries challenge review: The Sun Chemist by Lionel Davidson

Year of publication: 1976
Genre: Thriller
Type of investigator: Amateur
Setting & time: London, England, and Rehovot, Israel; 1970s.

(Note: links will open in new windows)

The narrator, historian Igor Druyanov, is in London, peacefully editing some of Chaim Weizmann’s personal papers when scientists at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot discover that Weizmann may have discovered how to use the ABE process (which Weizmann helped discover) on potatoes to produce a cheap high-octane fuel that can replace gasoline. Immediately it becomes apparent that someone is trying to get hold of Weizmann’s formula. Igor goes to great lengths to
a) find the formula among Weizmann's papers, and
b) prevent it from falling into the wrong hands,
which, it is hinted at, are those of the big oil-producing countries or companies which would naturally not want the invention to become known to the world.

This interesting thriller is obviously inspired by the 1973 oil crises, and Davidson has skilfully woven together fact and fiction into story about what might have happened if such a biofuel had been discovered at the time. Biodiesel and several other biofuels had actually been invented by that time, but I guess either Davidson didn’t know about them, counted on his readers not knowing about them, or possibly those fuels were at that time so expensive to produce that they couldn’t rival fossil fuels. The blending of fact and fiction has produced a story that could be true – one that most readers, even today, 30 years after it was written, would wish were true.

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.

The plotting is very good and quite intricate, but without an interesting protagonist to cheer on, I just couldn’t get interested enough to find the story enjoyable as a whole.

An interesting story that gets bogged down by wordiness and a boring protagonist. 2+ stars.

Books left in challenge:
According to my latest attempt at counting how many I have left, it’s 107.5 (I'm still reading C&P).


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