It's 1937, and Captain Alexei Korolev of Moscow's Criminal Investigation Division is involved in a complicated case. Korolev (whom William Ryan introduced to readers in 2010's The Holy Thief) is sent by Communist bigwigs to the Ukraine to investigate the murder of Maria Lenskaya, a young production assistant on the set of the film The Darkening Field, who was found hanging from a sconce. Her death is worrisome for the Party because she was romantically involved with Ezhov, the Commissar of State Security.
Forensics quickly prove it was murder, not suicide, and Korolev, with the help of Slivka, a tough female sergeant, must figure out why Lenskaya was killed. Was it because of her ties to Ezhov? Her mysterious past? Or her rumored connections to German spies? All the characters are scared: not of a murderer, but of the unlimited power of the State in Soviet Russia. Korolev and Slivka are under pressure to solve the case or risk being sent to a gulag; their suspects are under pressure to tell the truth or be declared enemies of the people. Korolev must tread carefully in order to catch the killer and save his own neck.
Ryan's vast array of suspects, soldiers and police officers can be confusing at first, especially given the similarities of many Russian names (not to mention the diminutive nicknames), but it's worth persevering. The Darkening Field is an excellent mystery with unforgettable characters, and it brings to life the tension of a dark era in Russian history. I greatly enjoyed this book, partly because Korolev is a very relatable character -- a nice guy just trying to survive in a world gone crazy around him-- and partly because I read it right after reading my first Maisie Dobbs book, and the contrast between 1930s Great Britain and 1930s Soviet Russia was so shocking. The Holy Thief is on my to-read list because I want to go back and see how the series began.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Should I recommend this to my grandma? Sure.
I'm not the only one who went through the "In Soviet Russia..." jokes phase when I was younger, right? Have you ever read a book set in Soviet times?
A slightly shorter version of this review first appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers. The cover image is an Amazon affiliate link.