THE BLOODY MEADOW/THE DARKENING FIELD – Reviews
First out of the gate on the 28th August was a review on the excellent Milo’s Rambles crime-writing blog (which is always worth a look-see).
Hot on its heals however came another very positive write-up on It’s a Crime (or a Mystery) – another great crime writing website
Marcel Berlins had this to say in The Times on the 3rd September:
The Holy Thief, set in Stalin’s Russia, was one of last year’s most
impressive crime fiction debuts. The Bloody Meadow, William Ryan’s
follow-up, does not disappoint. His hero, Captain Alexei Korolev, a
detective in Moscow’s criminal investigation squad in the 1930s,
dissatisfied and morose, manages to cling to his job and his life while
all around him are losing theirs. He’s ordered to the port of Odessa to
look into the apparent suicide of a young woman film production
assistant whose importance was that she was also the secret mistress of
an influential state commissar. Korolev’s inquiries unearth dangerous
Ryan has obviously done much research into that sinister period of
Russian history and manages to convey its claustrophobic atmosphere
Judith Flanders in The Spectator was also very complimentary a few days later:
Last year, with William Ryan’s The Holy Thief, detective-fiction aficionados welcomed the thrillingly horrific first instalment in a new series set in 1930s Moscow. In his first outing, Alexei Dmitrievich Korolev, a detective in the Moscow militia, managed to navigate the murky waters following the fall of Yagoda, head of the NKVD, and the onslaught of Stalin’s Great Purge.
Now, in the follow-up, Korolev has the dubious honour of being trusted as a safe pair of hands by Yagoda’s successor, Ezhov, who wants the police to investigate the supposed suicide of his ‘special friend’, a film production assistant. He cannot believe she killed herself and Korolev is despatched to the film-set in Odessa to find out.
Uncovering a murder is the least of Korolev’s problems. Was the mistress of the Commissar of State Security having an affair with a counter-revolutionary? If so, the person who reveals it to Ezhov is as good as dead. Add in complications that include gun-runners, turncoat Chekists and the Moscow King of Thieves himself, not to mention Korolev’s old neighbour, Isaac Babel, always ideologically unsound, and there appears to be no way of solving the crime without risking dozens of lives.
The Holy Thief was both bleak and savage — the opening scene, describing the torture of a young woman, is not one I would willingly read again. In an interesting change of pace which suggests the author has more than a formulaic series planned, in this second instalment Ryan has produced a film-noir-ish rewrite of the old-fashioned locked-room mystery, complete with creepily gripping, and ultimately gruesome, cops and robbers chase through the great catacombs on which Odessa sits, while Stalin’s man-made terror-famine, which scorched through the Ukraine half a decade before the book opens, is only gestured at, in elliptical speech and ultimately in the characters’ motivations.
Yet what remains constant is Ryan’s ability to display a foreign mindset while appearing to be entirely at home in the vernacular. His ear for dialogue is acute, finding that delicate balance between comedy-foreigner and too-idiomatic English: ‘If you’re afraid of bears, you shouldn’t go picking berries.’ And for history buffs, spot-the-real-life-double is entertaining, as the set of the fictional film The Bloody Meadow stands in for Sergei Eisenstein’s lost Bezhin Meadow, also scripted by Babel.
But while this is amusing, Ryan’s primary purpose remains the serious depiction of the hellish hall of mirrors that was Stalinist Russia. The film of The Bloody Meadow tells the story of Pavel Morozov, the Young Pioneer who denounced his father as an ‘enemy of the people’. Acclaimed as a new hero for a new age by the Soviets, the boy was in reality immediately afterwards murdered by his family. Ryan’s unrolling of the mental gymnastics required to survive this upside-down world where the morning’s hero is the evening’s victim is both thrillerishly pacey while also allowing his characters to grow in moral stature.
Korolev is a decent man who believes his job is to find murderers. How not to compromise his integrity while still managing to stay alive is the question that consumes him, and by extension, all the citizens of the new workers’ paradise. Turgenev wrote:
Whatever a man prays for, he prays for a miracle. Every prayer reduces itself to this: ‘Great God, grant that twice two be not four.’
Korolev, a model Soviet citizen, has to will himself not to realise that twice two is not four as Stalin’s purges wash his country in blood.
There was a nice review in Metro’s New Crime Books to Try feature on 14th September:
‘William Ryan convincingly pitched us into the Kafkaesque labyrinth of 1930s Stalinist Russia with last year’s The Holy Thief – his troubled Moscow militia detective risking the gulag as he uncovered crimes at high levels. In The Bloody Meadow Korolev is dispatched to film set in the Ukraine to dig into the supposed suicide of a young, pretty ‘model citizen’ with powerful connections . . . Korolev’s struggle to stay sane in a world gone mad is intriguing’
But Barry Forshaw in The Daily Express was even more generous on the same day:
After surviving encounters with corrupt officials in William Ryan’s much-acclaimed debut novel The Holy Thief, the intuitive Captain Alexei Korolev finds that rather than being dead or imprisoned he wins the day and is acclaimed a shining example for the Soviet people. He is even decorated.
Alexei is however all too well aware that nothing good in the communist Soviet Union is to be trusted and the dangerous information he has gathered in his activities has left him in a perilous position.
If the authorities discover the extent of his investigations an ice-cold future in a Siberian prison camp beckons. Soviet citizens of this era learned to dread the knock at the door in the wee small hours but when Alexei hears that knock on a snowy Moscow night it is not the catastrophe he expected.
NKVD Security Chief Colonel Rodino is the nocturnal visitor asking him to investigate the apparent suicide of a model citizen. Maria Lenskaya has died during the making of a film in the Ukraine and her death is a matter of great interest to the sinister Ezhov, commissar for state security.
The film Maria was making, the eponymous Bloody Meadow, is still shooting and when Alexei arrives on the movie set he soon finds himself in a dangerous situation with something unsayable – the failure of the revolution – the key to the mystery. Some authors and publishers live in fear of their second book. The dread springs from the readers’ familiar refrain: “That first book was so good… what went wrong?”
Nobody will be asking that question about The Bloody Meadow, every bit as darkly compelling as its predecessor with all the elements that made The Holy Thief so successful: razor-sharp plotting, an evocative sense of location in a vividly realised Ukraine and most winning of all the vulnerably human Alexei Korolev making a nuisance of himself.
John Dugdale in The Sunday Times gave The Bloody Meadow a qualified thumbs-up on 18th September.
“William Ryan’s much-admired debut, The Holy Thief, centred on 1930s Russian detective Alexei Korolev. The Follow up The Bloody Meadow sees Korolev sent to investigate the murder of a commissar’s mistress during a film shoot on a Ukrainian estate. The resemblance to an Agatha Christie country house mystery (but with an injection of politics) grows as he quizzes a colourful set of suspects, in a novel that confirms Ryan’s talent but lacks The holy Thief’s impact – since the atmosphere of Moscow amid Stalin’s Terror was crucial to its grip on the reader.”
John Boland in The Irish Independent liked it …
If William Ryan’s second novel isn’t quite as remarkable as his arresting debut, The Holy Thief, that’s largely because we’re already familiar with a milieu and a main character that were startlingly original on first acquaintance. By any other criterion, however, it’s an outstanding thriller.
Born in Limerick and educated in this country, Ryan worked as a lawyer in London — where he now lives — before completing an MA in creative writing at St Andrews.
For his first novel’s setting, though, he eschewed both the Ireland and the Britain of his time, opting instead to conjure up Moscow at the onset of the Stalin purges in the 1930s and creating an intriguing hero in the person of detective Alexei Korolev — a decent man who tries to ensure that his conformity to the system doesn’t leave him fatally compromised by elements within that very system.
The reign of state terror continues in The Bloody Meadow, with Korolev again both the central consciousness and the book’s conscience. Here he’s dispatched to a film location in the Ukraine, where a young woman has been found dead in suspicious circumstances — her supposed suicide complicated by the fact that among her lovers was the much-feared Ezhov, commissar for state security who wants the matter solved without anyone knowing of his involvement.
The possibility that Ezhov himself might have wanted the girl dead occurs to Korolev, though there are many other suspects to be found in the film location outside Kiev where most of the book is set — including a baleful local police chief, two shifty journalists, a band of violent subversives and the writer Isaac Babel, with whom Korolev had become acquainted in The Holy Thief. In fact, the detective’s only ally appears to be his feisty young female colleague Nadezhda Slivka.
This could be the set-up for an exotic Agatha Christie mystery, except that Ryan is so alert to the psychology of his characters and so persuasive in suggesting ominous political forces that the book transcends its mechanistic limitations — the process of “putting facts together and producing possibilities from them”, as Korolev sums up his job.
Indeed, putting facts together as he wryly notes, can be dangerous in a society such as that engineered by communism and ruthlessly pursued by Stalin, where paranoia infects most relationships and where betrayal and accusations of treachery can occur at any moment.
Korolev is constantly aware of this, reflecting towards the end that “how he’d managed to survive this long in a hard world was a mystery to him”.
But he does survive and admirers of Ryan’s troubled and wary hero will hope that he reappears for yet another outing.
As did Khulehhali Madlela in Gulf News:
Captain Alexei Korolev is living in Moscow and struggling with his private life when he is awakened by a knock in the wee hours of the day. He has been waiting for this day for a long time. However, what surprises him is that instead of being shipped to Siberia, he is sent off to Ukraine — in style. Time is of the essence and the detective finds himself on an aeroplane for the first time. Is he off the hook?
An actress filming The Bloody Meadow has been found hanging in an apparent suicide. She was no ordinary actress but a good citizen linked to party bigwigs. The powers that be want damage control. So Korolev embarks on a mission that takes him through the flat landscape of Odessa and battered villages, which remind him of his combat days.
The crime scene, a living room in an old manor house at an agricultural institute, is cleaned (of any fingerprints) to such an extent that even the seasoned homicide detective is unnerved. When a surprising substance is found in the dead girl’s body, Korolev’s quest to find the truth puts him on track for a deadly collision. He finds himself up against corrupt party officials, local militia, film stars and highly organised criminals who will do anything to clear any obstacles in their way. The detective wants out but dares not voice such concerns because his life hangs in the balance.
The Bloody Meadow really takes off when the thieves uncover evidence of shady dealings involving arms that could land in the hands of enemies of the state. Korolev, with the help of a local detective, must solve the murder and cover up the potentially damaging scandal.
Filled with chilling twists and turns, The Bloody Meadow is another masterpiece from Ryan, whose first book, The Holy Thief, is also set in 1930s Russia. Though mysteries set in this period abound, The Bloody Meadow holds its own. Ryan spins a gripping tale to illuminate the burning issues of the day: cheap labour brought in from villages to work in factories and living in squalid conditions, the plight of children in orphanages, the widening gap between the “haves” and “have-nots”, and arbitrary arrests for sabotage.
There is paranoia and no one is to be trusted — not even family members. People are guarded in their speech because not using politically correct terms — for instance, referring to Leningrad as St Petersburg — could land them in the gulag.
The history of Russia is beautifully captured, including the Civil War and atrocities committed by the NKVD in the name of quashing counter-revolutionaries. For an Irish writer to capture the pulse of the Soviet empire like a Muscovite is commendable and testament to the extensive research Ryan conducted.
The title of the book, which is also the title of the film being shot, gives away the game — but that is not a bad thing, as Ryan’s engrossing writing style ensures that readers get their dose of scary moments. Yes, it is a jungle out there in which nature is red in tooth and claw. There are trigger-happy monsters prowling the pages, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. In all this the author has a great sense of place and keeps reminding readers where they are by throwing in lines about the Russian cold weather.
With its pacy style, The Bloody Meadow is a high-speed thriller that keeps you turning pages until the end. I could have read the 308-pager in one sitting had it not been for the Russian names that I had a hard time remembering. However, the list of key characters and their roles that the author has thoughtfully provided at the beginning of the book proved helpful. The Bloody Meadow is a well-crafted story with believable characters.
The Gazette Herald described the book as “refreshing”:
CAPTAIN Alexei Korolov is well known as a detective who does his job with the utmost discretion, for he is often called to investigate those in the political elite of 1930s Soviet Russia.
After his last case in The Holy Thief, Korolov fears for his life or spending the rest of his days in the labour camps of Siberia, so when a knock on the door comes in the middle of the night, he fears the worst. Instead, he is asked to investigate the suspected suicide of a young woman who was working on a film-set in Ukraine.
Korolov discovers that the girl has been a lover of Ezhov, the chief of National Security who wants the utmost discretion in the case, but Korolov discovers that the girl was murdered and uncovers plans regarding the safety of the State.
He finds all those around him are under suspicion of both murder and terrorism.
William Ryan is a refreshing voice in the world of detective fiction, introducing characters we become fond of in a difficult period of world history. I admire his enthusiasm for the research he has to do and the way he eases it into a fast-paced story.
The lovely Dorothy James has given it the thumbs up on My Place for Mystery
In the November issue of The Literary Review, Jessica Mann had this to say:
Captain Alexei Korolev, like everyone else in Stalin’s Russia, lives in terror of deportation to Siberia. But his previous case (in Ryan’s first book, The Holy Thief) won him official favour, so when he hears a knock on the door in the small hours, it’s not what he might have feared. Korolev is to go to Odessa and investigate a suspicious death on a film set, where a woman who was the secret mistress of an influential state commissar has apparently committed suicide. Korolev’s inquiries lead him into a world of dangerous secrets. Ryan is very knowledgeable about a dreadful place during a terrible period of history, and creates an atmosphere of claustrophobia and terror. In a topsy-turvy world where logic and experience can’t compete against a capricious tyranny, Korolev knows only too well that survival is a fluke and safety is an illusion. This is very neatly plotted and well written, and amounts to a convincing recreation of paranoia in Stalinist Russia.
Bookreporter liked the US edition, Ray Palen saying “I believe Captain Korolev has much more to say, and I look forward to his next outing.”
RT Book Reviews were also impressed, Donna M. Brown saying “Colorful characters, including the organized crime gang the Moscow Thieves, drive a tightly woven plot toward the startling conclusion.”
Kirkus liked it, comparing it to Stuart Kaminsky’s novels.
Russian Life liked it, saying of the novel: “It is well written, moves along at a brisk pace, has a compelling protagonist, and delivers an entertaining story that teaches us a few things along the way. What more could one ask for, really?”
Publishers Weekly described it as “compelling“, but had some concerns about there being too many plot twists. Ah well.
Library Journal had no such concerns however giving it a resounding thumbs-up:
“Ryan’s prodigious research is crafted into an intense tale marked by Korolev’s yearning to do an honest job of criminal investigation without drawing attention to his essentially ethical and religious nature (a no-no in the atheistic Soviet Union). Ryan’s main characters are strong and believable, the dialog is crisply idiomatic, and Odessa’s cityscape is grimly foreboding. Ryan’s Korolev is on a brilliant trajectory to join the ranks of respected European detectives.”
And Book List gave it a much appreciated Starred Review:
” … Booklist lauded Ryan’s first Korolev novel, The Holy Thief (2010), and this successor fully delivers on the promise of that judgment. Korolev is a wonderful character, a spiritual ancestor of Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko, persevering amid the murderous paranoia of Stalin’s Russia. The plot is intricate, the action satisfying, and Ryan’s use of period detail, including the brutal collectivization of the Ukraine and that region’s nationalist and anarchist movements, makes for exhilarating reading.”
Shelf Awareness also gave it a great review, Jessica Howard writing:
“Ryan’s vast array of suspects, soldiers and police officers can be confusing at first, especially given the similarities of many Russian names, but it’s worth persevering. The Darkening Field is an excellent mystery with unforgettable characters, and it brings to life the tension of a dark era in Russian history.”
Margot Kinberg gave The Darkening Field a very thoughtful and positive review on her Confessions of Mystery Novelist blog, describing it as “a suspenseful and well-drawn atmosphere of paranoia and suspicion.”
And Lunch.com gave it another very good review, saying “It’s white knuckle time quite often, and the reader tends to be on the edge of his seat. I look forward to many more books in this excellent series, since it’s obvious the author has done extensive research into the times and places about which he writes, and he conveys the implicit spirit of menace and fear very well. “