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19 November 2018

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The Darkening Field

William Ryan (Minotaur, $24.99)

Detective Alexei Korolev is back in this, the second of William Ryan’s deeply researched historical mystery novels set in 1930s USSR. The time period is perfect for this genre, rife as it is with moral uncertainty, terror and double-dealing.

Korolev has the great misfortune of being a doggedly successful detective, and this has gotten him noticed by the Lubyanka. So he is sent to Odessa in 1937 to investigate the suspicious death of a young woman. Who, it turns out, happened to be Nikolai Yezhov’s lover. Yes, that Yezhov, the head of the NKVD and Stalin’s architect of the Purges.

The murder occurs during the filming of a movie (The Darkening Field, based on Eisenstein’s Bezhin Meadow of real life) written by Korolev’s friend, the writer Isaac Babel, who makes a cameo. It is a sensitive investigation, to say the least, the sort of thing that, once solved, people will want to eliminate all living memory of…

Of course, all manner of things go wrong, and the murder is but the tip of a very dangerous iceberg. Korolev, who just wants to do his job, to be a detective, must navigate very difficult terrain, constantly wondering if solving the case will get him a ticket to the Gulag.

Ryan gets the Russian stuff right (unlike many historical novels set in Russia), conveying the ominous, dark uncertainty of the 1930s, as well as the pervasive fear – the need to constantly hide your inner life, to tow the line and censor your thoughts. But for all that, the novel, like his first, is not heavy. 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?

{Russian Life will be hosting an interview with William Ryan on its blog in January.}

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: Jan/Feb 2012