This is the second novel to feature Captain Alexei Korolev, the first being The Holy Thief. Set in 1937, The Bloody Meadow of the title is the name of a film being shot in the Ukraine. When Maria Lenskaya, a beautiful young woman working as a production assistant on the film, is found dead, Korolev is dispatched from Moscow to discover the truth about her apparent suicide. After his involvement in a serious investigation assisting the NKVD, the state security service, the previous year, he had been hoping 'to keep well clear of anything connected with the Chekists until they forgot he'd ever existed'. However, he finds himself back assisting them again with this case in Odessa, a case in which no less than the head of the NKVD, Commissar Ezhov, has a particular interest.
The film's storyline is required to convey the correct message, namely loyalty to the State and the Party, and deviation from this will bring trouble for the director and the production team. The writer Babel, whom Korolev befriended in The Holy Thief, makes a reappearance here assisting with the film. Korolev teams up with a new assistant in the Ukraine, Sergeant Slivka, a junior detective from Odessa, who proves to be a good match for him as they make their way through questioning everyone on set and staying in the former grand country house, a 'remnant of a bygone age' that is now an agricultural college, and where many of the film crew have temporarily based themselves.
As we first saw in The Holy Thief, Korolev still has mixed feelings about his country and the direction it is going in. On the one hand, 'he felt a surge of pride that he was fortunate enough to be a Soviet citizen, living in the capital of a country that was leading the world by example.' On the other hand, he sees the fear in people all around him, and he personally also still has 'allegiances to individuals and beliefs that would put him at risk if they ever came to light.'
The citizens are always on their guard, cautious about what they say, so fearful of potential consequences under Stalin's rule. Instead, as Korolev observes, '...much of a Soviet citizen's conversation these days involved the unsaid, the oblique and euphemistic. Some intellectual would no doubt make a study, in due course, of the ability of Soviet citizens to communicate without saying quite what they meant.'
This intelligent historical mystery had me gripped throughout the time I was reading it. It is well plotted and evokes the atmosphere of the times vividly, conveying to us a sense of the horror that was inflicted on the Ukraine through Korolev's eyes as he arrives there. The historical background is convincing and the scene is always set for us, but this detail never overshadows the intriguing characters or the strong mystery plot. Korolev is a very likeable lead character; it's easy to get behind him and will him to succeed in his investigation despite the many obstacles that are strewn in his path as people are so reluctant or fearful of divulging the truth. I feel his character grows in this book, as we learn more about the man. He has a constant struggle to try and remain first and foremost an honest man, doing his duty, whilst trusting in the Party to bring about a better future, and yet secretly maintaining his religious beliefs. Korolev is determined to find the real culprit here and not be satisfied, as he knows some amongst his colleagues are, to simply make an arrest. As he says of his investigative style; 'I just shake the tree till all the apples come down, then work out which one is the rotten one. I don't presume it's the first that falls into my lap.'
As more secrets are uncovered, the layers of the mystery deepen and the plot builds to a thrilling finish in Odessa. I enjoyed this story as much as, if not more than, The Holy Thief. I am really looking forward to reading the next offering from this author and to catching up with Captain Korolev once again.
You can visit the author's website here to find a lot of further information about the background to Korolev's world including some fascinating photographs, and you can also follow the author on twitter @WilliamRyan_
Published by Pan on 15 March 2012 in paperback and e-book editions - available now.