The Bloody Meadow by William Ryan is the second of his Stalinist-era crime novels featuring Captain Alexei Korolev of the Moscow Criminal Investigation Division. The first, The Holy Thief, was my choice for Auntie Marjorie’s Christmas present on the It’s A Crime… blog. The Bloody Meadow was the book I read myself over the Christmas break.
The novel is steeped in an atmosphere of paranoia, right from the outset. The fall-out from Korolev’s last case has left him fearful of a visit from the dreaded NKVD security service. He knows that it won’t just be his own life that’s affected if he is arrested, but the lives of everyone he cares about.
But when the dreaded knock on the door in the dead of night finally comes, it is not the beginning of the end for him, but the beginning of a new case. But why should a Moscow detective be required to investigate the apparent suicide of a young woman working as a production assistant on a film being shot in the Ukraine? Because the young woman in question was a “personal friend” of Ezhov, the powerful Commissar of State Security. Naturally, Ezhov wants the best available detective working the case. Unfortunately for Korolev, that just happens to be him.
The set-up is perfectly judged to express the precarious tension in Korolev’s position as a detective in Stalinist Russia. He’s called upon to uncover the truth, but he knows that if the truth he uncovers is not one his masters want to hear, then things will go very badly for him indeed. As ever, the detective finds himself between a rock and hard place. To add to the unease, he boards an aeroplane to Odessa, to begin a journey into an ever deeper anxiety, cast adrift from the familiar streets of Moscow.
The sense of alienation and fear comes to a dramatic climax in a shoot-out beneath the catacombs of Odessa. To solve the crime, Korolev has had to seek the help of “The King of Thieves”, a notorious criminal gang leader. Order is restored by recourse to lawlessness, perhaps a fitting metaphor for the topsy-turvy logic of the Stalinist state.
William Ryan has constructed an absorbing crime story, with overtones of a classic “closed community” mystery. His command of the historical, political, psychological and emotional texture of the time is incredibly impressive. He has moved himself and his protagonist effortlessly to the Ukraine, and manages to convey the relevant history of that region with an enviable deftness of touch. In fact, as a writer who has tackled a Russian setting myself, I found much to envy in this book! In short, The Bloody Meadow is bloody marvellous. (Sorry, couldn’t resist!)