John Gordon Davis (21 January 1936 – 5 November 2014) was a Rhodesian writer of adventure novels. The worldwide success of his first published novel, Hold My Hand I’m Dying (1967), prompted him to become a full-time writer.
Of Welsh heritage, Gordon Davis was born in the town of Enkeldoorn in Southern Rhodesia (now Chivhu, Zimbabwe), to John Gordon-Davis and Iris Tilly. His father, the local bank manager, had grown up in Colesberg, South Africa, where his own father was at one time mayor. John Junior went to school at Bishops in Cape Town, matriculated at Umtata High School in the Transkei and obtained a BA in Political Science from Rhodes University in Grahamstown. While a student, he joined the Seaman’s Union. He paid his tuition fees by working as a deckhand in the British Merchant Navy for two years, sailing around much of the world, and by joining the Dutch whaling fleet in the Antarctic. His experiences at sea later served as inspiration for his whaling novels Cape of Storms (1970) and Leviathan (1976).
Gordon Davis travelled widely as a graduate, at times accompanied by his then girlfriend Patti Dougherty. He travelled around the Americas, worked for a spell at a gold mine in Northern Canada, practised law in Toronto and hitch-hiked and drove around the United States. He also worked as a steward on the Union-Castle Line and the Cunard Line, and hitch-hiked through the Australian Outback. Whilst working as a clerk for the chief justice back in Rhodesia and going on circuit with him, Gordon Davis obtained a bachelor’s degree in Law from the University of South Africa. He was called to the Bar, working as assistant public prosecutor in the Magistrate’s Courts in the years ahead of Rhodesia’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965. He next became Crown Counsel in the Attorney General’s Chambers.
In the Rhodesian capital Salisbury, Gordon Davis had a chance encounter with adventure writer Wilbur Smith, whom he knew from their time at Rhodes University. Gordon Davis said he had just come back from Canada, where he had gone looking for adventure without finding it. Smith told him he was living off the royalties of his recent first novel, which had been published in 1964. Gordon Davis, who had believed that no one, especially in Africa, could make a living out of writing, was inspired by Smith’s success to try his hand at it. According to Smith in his 2018 memoir On Leopard Rock, Gordon Davis said: “Jesus, if an arsehole like you can publish a book, imagine what I could do.” Smith replied: “Well, Gordon Davis, don’t tell me about it, go and do it.”
Moving to Hong Kong in 1966, Gordon Davis worked there as Crown Counsel during the political and social upheaval of the Cultural Revolution in nearby China. The city was to provide him with a setting for three novels (The Years of the Hungry Tiger, 1974; Typhoon, 1978 and The Year of Dangerous Loving, 1997), as well as inspiring a non-fiction book of photographs for which he wrote the accompanying text (Hong Kong Through the Looking Glass, 1969).
After an initial novel was rejected, his first novel to be published was Hold My Hand I’m Dying (1967). Gordon Davis had written the manuscript in Rhodesia, finishing it in a rented cottage in Inyanga in the Eastern Highlands while on three months’ unpaid leave. Published by Michael Joseph Ltd. in the United Kingdom, the book became an instant bestseller, selling millions of copies around the world. The story places fictional characters against the historical backdrop of Rhodesia from the completion of Kariba Dam in 1959 until the outbreak of the Rhodesian Bush War in 1964. The protagonist, Joseph Mahoney, is a Rhodesian-born, British-descended Native Commissioner who is studying law while working on a novel and having an off-and-on relationship with a young Afrikaans woman. Mahoney considers his Ndebele adjutant Samson Ndhlovu to be a good friend, but their bond is straining under the clamour for Black self-government, which threatens to plunge the country into civil war.
Hold My Hand I’m Dying was published in six languages. The South African censor banned the novel citing its sexual content; the ban was eventually lifted in 1983. The novel was later adapted into a film titled Blind Justice (1988), directed by Terence Ryan and starring Christopher Cazenove as Mahoney. Following the success of his debut novel, Gordon Davis resigned as Crown Counsel and became a full-time writer.