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
And 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.