William Ryan’s debut novel The Holy Thief was shortlisted for the CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger in 2010, the Irish Fiction Award and the Theakstons Crime Novel of the Year Award. Following his outing in that novel, Captain Alexei Korolev is similarly celebrated, finding himself decorated and hailed as an example to all Soviet workers at the start of The Bloody Meadow. But Korolev is also all too aware that such honours may also last only as long as his most recent action or the actions of others. So he, like everyone else in Stalin’s Russia, lives each minute of the day in fear of deportation to Siberia. But when Korolev receives a knock on the door in the early hours, it is because he has fallen under the eye of Colonel Rodinov of the NKVD security service and he wants Korolev to perform a discreet investigation into a suspicious death that looks like suicide. Out on a film set in the Ukraine, model citizen Alexandrovna Lenskaya has been found dead. Her death cannot pass quietly for fear of reverberation: Lenskaya was of interest to Ezhov, the feared Commissar for State Security, and it is he who wants the matter looked into…
Here, Ryan takes real people and real circumstances as his inspiration. Writer Isaac Babel – who appeared in The Holy Thief as a neighbour of Korolev’s – appears on the film set of The Bloody Meadow and he had been involved in the screenplay for the lost masterpiece that was Eisenstein’s Bezhin Meadow, from which the novel’s title was derived. It is under the guise of ‘taking a holiday’ that Korolev arrives at the film set and it is soon obvious that Lenskaya’s death was the product of the actions of another human’s hands. As with The Holy Thief, we have evocative and solid-running themes. Projects, actions and developments are to be world leaders to prove that Russia can beat the showy capitalist successes – with a focus on Hollywood in this case. The Lord God should not be mentioned, but often is, much to the chagrin of those who evoke him. Motives for any action or statement must be considered to the nth degree. But within this world of consuming paranoia, Ryan again offers us a light touch with humour. Take Korolev’s encounter with glamorous actress Sorokina as one example:
Barikada Sorokina stood in front of him like a fully limbed and clothed Venus de Milo, a brown fur coat hanging over her shoulders against which her blonde hair shone like gold. For a moment, Korolev was so surprised by the vision before him that it didn’t occur to him that she might be waiting for something. Then, to his surprise, he found his body had got to its feet, marched across the floor and given a suspiciously tsarist-like bow to the beautiful actress, who extended her hand, not to be shaken, but to be kissed. Korolev, cheeks burning, found himself complying with her wishes.
Korolev is both shaken and stirred.
Nothing is simple in Korolev’s world and nothing proves to be as it first seemed. Like all good plotters, Ryan knows how to throw a curve ball, or even a baker’s dozen, the reader’s way. The Bloody Meadow moves to a bloody denouement which, fantastically, unites some very unlikely citizens in an action to protect the regime. Along the way, Korolev also picks up a new sidekick in the form of Nadezhda Slivka, a young woman in whom he learns to trust and for whom ‘calling mother’ has surprisingly far-reaching connotations.
This is a very solid second novel from Ryan which both entertains and educates; and Korolev is a wonderful and complex character to yearn for. The Bloody Meadow will demand your attention, so make sure your diary has been appropriately booked.
Do check out the author’s site for more information on the author and background to the books. The Bloody Meadow is published today in hardback and in Kindle. For collectors, Goldsboro Books offers both signed & dated and, signed, lined & dated editions of the hardback.