Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Historical mysteries have become a very popular sub-genre of crime fiction, and when they’re done well, there’s good reason for that. They give the reader a fascinating perspective on a particular place and time while also telling a solid mystery story. So this week and next week, we’ll be spotlighting two historical mysteries that take place at more or less the same time (just before World War II), but in different places. I hope it’ll be an interesting way to look at that era from different perspectives. Today, let’s take a close look at William Ryan’s The Darkening Field, the second of Ryan’s Alexei Korolev novels.
Moscow CID Captain Alexei Dmitriyevich Korolev is trying to do his job – catch criminals – in the treacherous political landscape that is the pre-World War II Stalinist Soviet Union. Late one night, he is summoned by Colonel Rodinov of the NKVD. Fearing the worst, Korolev is surprised when Rodinov assigns him to a very delicate task. Maria Alexandrovna Lenskaya is an up-and-coming actress and dedicated Party worker who has apparently committed suicide while filming on location. Rodinov wants Korolev to travel to Odessa, where the death took place, and investigate quietly. If the death turns out to be a suicide, it will be a straightforward case. But if Lenskaya was murdered, this could be a major political mess that could get a lot of people in trouble. So Korolev will have to tread very carefully. Korolev really doesn’t have a choice but to agree to the investigation, and he travels to Odessa to begin the task.
When Korolev gets to Odessa, he learns to his dismay that Lenskaya was murdered. Now he’ll have to undertake an official police investigation that could get very dangerous. He’s assigned Odessa CID Sergeant Nadezhda Andreyevna Slivka as his assistant and the two get to work on the case. They soon discover that this case could become extremely risky for both of them. For one thing, as they look into Lenskaya’s background, they find that she had several “friends” among highly placed Party members, including People’s Commissar for State Security (and NKVD head) Nikolai Ezhov. So if her death had something to do with her personal relationships, Korolev and Slivka risk quite a lot by finding the real killer. Another possibility is that Lenskaya was a secret counter-revolutionary who was killed “in the line of duty.” If that’s the case, then Korolev and Slivka risk making another set of enemies. And then Korolev discovers another, equally dangerous angle to the case. He learns from Count Kolya, Chief Authority of the Moscow Thieves, that the Thieves have their own interest in the Odessa area. They use that area for the “importation” of things that people want to buy that can’t easily be found legally. Lately, a group that’s possibly connected with the Nazis has been involved in an “arrangement” with a group of Ukrainian terrorists to import guns in exchange for intelligence about Soviet military strength and other useful information. Kolya and the Thieves don’t want that “arrangement” to go on because it might call too much attention to their own operations. He tells Korolev that Lenskaya might have known about this “arrangement” and been killed because of it. Now it’s clear that no matter who actually killed Lenskaya, there’s going to be a lot of danger for Korolev and Slivka. But if they refuse to follow the case through, that has its own dangers and besides, Korolev does his job well and he knows his duty. So he and Slivka slowly and carefully continue their investigation. In the end, they get to the truth about what really happened to Maria Lenskaya, and when they do, we find that the murder has been committed for a believable motive.
One of the most important elements in this novel is the sense of mistrust – even paranoia – that permeates the story. No-one can really trust anyone, because at any moment, one’s friend or neighbour could denounce one as an Enemy of the People. Allegiances are shaky at best, and self-preservation is of paramount importance. We see this even between Korolev and Slivka, who are supposed to be working together on this case. In one sense, they trust each other because they have to. But we still see this fear. For instance, in one scene, Slivka is giving Korolev a tour of the Odessa area. She finds out that Korolev didn’t get a chance to see the town very well as he was flying in and says:
“‘From the air you can see what a well-planned city Odessa is.’
‘Our Soviet planners are the envy of the world,’ Korolev said automatically.
‘They are, although in this case the planning was done long before the Revolution.’
‘A Frenchman,’ she shrugged. ‘Wait till you see it – it looks like Paris, they say. Maybe the Frenchman was homesick.’
Slivka’s smile faded.
‘Of course,’ she added, her words coming out faster than previously, ‘Soviet Power has transformed the city for the better. In every way.’
‘I knew what you meant, Slivka,’ Korolev said, ‘There’s no need to concern yourself.’
It was the first time he’d seen her confidence slip and it saddened him that she should be concerned about such an innocuous comment. Even if, of course, she was right to be.”
We get the strong feeling that everyone’s looking over a shoulder and with good reason.
Another element woven through this novel is the setting. Ryan places the reader unmistakeably in 1937 Odessa:
“Maybe Odessa did look like Paris – Korolev had never been there. He’d seen pictures of the place in newspapers of course and it seemed to him that, despite the peeling paint, Odessa had a certain fin de siècle elegance…The cold sun twinkled on tram tracks and polished the cobblestones golden as the car roared happily along wide boulevards, scattering the odd pigeon and drawing the occasional glance from pedestrians huddled against the frosty morning chill. Maybe it was also a bit like Petersburg, it occurred to him, before he reminded himself that it had been Leningrad since Lenin’s death in 1924 and it was about time he remembered.”
There’s a strong feeling not just from the sense of location but also from the kind of murder that it is that this story couldn’t have taken place anywhere else.
There are also some interesting characters in the novel. Korolev, for instance, is a “regular guy” simply trying to do his best in this new world. He’s in his 40’s, so he remembers the time before the Revolution. On the one hand, he’s proud to be a Russian and he feels a sense of pride in Soviet might and in the goals of the Revolution. And he wants to stay alive. On the other, he’s also seen the down side of the Revolution. He’s seen people – friends and neighbours – taken away in the middle of the night. He knows that with one thoughtless comment the same fate would await him. He sees that things haven’t really gotten better since the Revolution, too, although a part of him keeps hoping. He’s not overly religiously observant – in fact, he can’t be in the world of Stalin’s Soviet Union. But he still feels a connection to the Church he’s always known; more than once, he makes the sign of the cross in his pocket, so as to balance his own instincts with his pragmatism. And “pragmatic” is a good word to describe him. Korolev knows that ideals and ethics are one thing, but sometimes people have to do what they have to do.
Sergeant Slivka is also an interesting character. She’s an up-and-coming hard-working police officer with good instincts. It would stray too close to spoilers to tell too much of her background, but as we learn about it, we learn that Slivka is a multi-dimensional and strong character. She’s a good fit for Korolev as well; they have complementary skills and it’s realistic to believe they would be a good team. And it’s refreshing that they work well together and do their jobs without the clichéd “tortured attraction” that too often gets in the way of a good police partnership. There are other interesting characters, too, and Ryan provides a very helpful guide to them at the beginning of the novel.
A believable mystery in a suspenseful and well-drawn atmosphere of paranoia and suspicion, The Darkening Field is clearly placed in the Stalinist Soviet Union and features well-drawn and believable characters. But what’s your view? Have you read The Darkening Field? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 27 February/Tuesday 28 February – A Trace of Smoke – Rebecca Cantrell
Monday 5 March/Tuesday 6 March – Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow – Peter Høeg
Monday 19 March/Tuesday 20 March – Deadly Appearances – Gail Bowen