With his first novel, THE HOLY THIEF, William Ryan introduced mystery fans to an intriguing new protagonist. The year was 1936, and Captain Alexei Dmitriyevich Korolev was on the trail of a brutal murder during Stalin’s Great Terror reign. Now the year is 1937, and Korolev did not make many friends in his last highly publicized case. This time he is faced with the dual challenge of upholding the law while not ruffling the feathers of the Party --- an act that could quickly find one banished to Siberia.
"I believe Captain Korolev has much more to say, and I look forward to his next outing."
In the shadow of looming World War, Korolev is summoned to NKVD headquarters in Moscow and given a new assignment. Commissar Ezhov, head of the NKVD and aide to Stalin, needs Korolev to investigate the apparent suicide of a close personal friend of his: a young woman named Maria Alexandrovna Lenskaya, a loyal party member and semi-famous Russian film star. She was found hanging from a beam on the set of a movie being subsidized by the State, and the initial ruling of suicide is being called into question.
Who better to travel to Odessa to investigate this situation than Captain Korolev? He himself is a secretly-practicing Orthodox Christian of unwavering moral character who will go to almost any length to see justice served. While making inquiries on the set of The Darkening Field, Korolev finds a bevy of possible suspects both within the production and among the nosy locals where the film is being shot.
Initial medical findings of the body do not corroborate a suicide attempt. It appears Maria was indeed murdered at another location and then propped up into the hanging position she was found in to make it look like a suicide. As Korolev digs deeper, he finds that there is much more going on. More importantly, the State wishes this case to go away quickly as they feel their government-backed film industry is on the verge of competing with the up-and-coming Hollywood.
A murder victim who seems to have been sleeping with everyone on her film set and some powerful State members seeking the truth behind her murder to remain hidden put Korolev in a position that will have readers squirming in suspense for the repercussions each of his actions will have.
THE DARKENING FIELD joins a long line of Soviet-based mystery series. The door to this genre was firmly opened by Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko series, which kicked off with the classic GORKY PARK, and most recently the Russian thrillers of Tom Rob Smith. I believe Captain Korolev has much more to say, and I look forward to his next outing.
Reviewed by Ray Palen on January 26, 2012