It’s 1937. The Soviet Union, still reeling from its drive to collectivization and the elimination of the so-called kulaks (rich peasants), is now in the grips of the terror Stalin has initiated to purge the Party, the army, and Soviet society in general of anyone who so much as breathes a hint of opposition to him or any questions about the superiority of the Soviet system. Official Soviet figures showed that at least 12 million people died as a direct or indirect result of these draconian policies — and some military historians speculate that the USSR came perilously close to losing World War II because of Stalin’s elimination of so much of the army’s senior officer corps. These are the tragic historical events that form the background to this compelling murder mystery.
A murder mystery set during Stalin’s terror
William Ryan sets the second novel in his three-book series of murder mysteries, The Darkening Field (The Bloody Meadow in the UK), in the midst of these unsettled times. Captain Alexei Dimitrevich Korolev, a detective in the Soviet militia (police) is awakened from sleep at 2:00 am and summoned to meet with the feared Colonel Rodinov of the NKVD, forerunner of the KGB. Though he assumes he will be arrested and dispatched to Siberia, or worse, the Colonel simply informs him that he has been assigned to look into the presumed suicide of a young woman working on a movie set near Odessa in present-day Ukraine.
The Darkening Field (Captain Alexei Korolev #2) by William Ryan ★★★★★
For unstated reasons, Korolev must be discreet, pretending that he is on vacation and not engaged in an investigation unless it is established that the woman did not commit suicide. Frighteningly, the order to assign Korolev has come down from the Commissar of State Security who heads the NKVD.
Of course, no reader of murder mysteries will be surprised to learn that the young woman did not die by her own hand, nor that the circumstances surrounding her death are anything but straightforward. Korolev doggedly pursues his investigation, delving into the past lives of the people who live on-site, the cast and crew of the film, and both the local police assigned to help him and the NKVD officer on site who is determined to undermine him. The more deeply Korolev digs, the broader and more terrifying the implications of the murder become, threatening not just his future but the stability of the Soviet state. As the story unfolds, revealing more and more of the ugly underbelly of Soviet society under Stalin, we come to understand that no nation, regardless of how powerful its dictator might be, is never totalitarian.
Ryan’s protagonist, Dimitri Korolev, is a fascinating character. Like so many Soviet citizens of the time, he remains a Believer, prone to exposure at all times because he so frequently utters incriminating phrases such as “If God wills it.” Yet he is also convinced that Marxism is scientific, that the USSR is on the correct historical path, and that Stalin is a wise man who guides the state with a steady hand.
Call The Darkening Field an historical novel or call it a thriller — either way it’s a great read.
About the author
William Ryan, an Irish author living in London, worked as an attorney before turning to writing full-time.
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