My rating: 4 of 5 stars
After his heroics in solving the hot-potato of a case in the first of William Ryan’s series set in 1930’s Russia, The Holy Thief, Captain Alexei Korolev is now a model Soviet Citizen. Officially. Medal and fame and everything that goes with it in Stalin’s Soviet Union. That ‘everything’ is mostly suspicion. From the people who put him there and from those who aren’t there, but think they might like to be. And especially from those who, quit rightly, would just about anything to avoid doing anything that might lead them catch Stalin’s attention. Well, you get the picture. Only now, as a feted detective, Korolev gets the juicy assignments. Something I’m sure he wishes didn’t come with the territory. Here, he gets an even warmer potato than before dropped on him from a great height by Rodinov of the NKVD, the Soviet State Security people. He is sent to Ukraine, to a film set, to investigate what looks to have been the suicide of one of the actresses. Of course, to make matters, and the story, interesting, there is soon much more to the situation than at first meets the eye. Maria Lenskaya seems to have been a model Soviet citizen, though seems along the way, to have cultivated some friends, ideas and family, who, shall we say, maybe don’t always pay their Party subs on time each month. The more Korolev looks, the more he finds that makes him wish he hadn’t looked. There’s no way out for him though, he has to investigate, ‘people’ back in Moscow want to find out the truth about the death. But who’s ‘truth’ should Korolev find?
I think that what makes this story – as with the previous ‘The Bloody Meadow’ – stand out, was the subtle, effortless, effective, creation of a real sense of dread that must have been prevalent in Moscow, Russia at the time. Obviously, I wasn’t there at the time, I don’t know anyone who was, so I can’t – like many reviewers I see when reading reviews of books set in the past – say with authority “He has recreated the period perfectly.” How the fuck do they know? Were they there? Are they related to someone who was? No. They always read to me, like the reviewer is making out they are the definitive authority on whatever period the book is set in, and they’re grading the book like it was a school pupil’s essay to be compared against the set text which is their knowledge of how it was, wherever it is. Anyway, I can only go from what I’ve seen on TV or read in books (like this) and say that if it was as dreadful as the various snippets of knowledge i have amassed during my life, then surely, this is how it was. How it was to be a (reasonably) ordinary person in ’30’s Russia. Korolev doesn’t of course, have to queue for hours on end for the weekly turnip, but he does see the deprivations that the revolution and the new Worker’s Paradise have brought. And Stalin’s paranoid hi-jacking of it all. Nothing is as predictable as Stalin’s unpredictability, you might say.
Korolev does seem to have got on Stalin’s good side – for now – though, that is a recipe for future disaster if ever there was one. Kotolev is mostly his own man, but knows where to draw the line for his own safety. Korolev doesn’t yet seem disillusioned with it all and yet he is doing more than just trying to stay alive and keep his nose clean. And if staying alive means being a silent witness to the re-writing of the past, present and the future, he will, for now at least, have to go along with it. There’s not much more he can do. And stay alive.
Buy The Bloody Meadow at The Book Depository
The Holy Thief by William Ryan – my review
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