Sunday 23 July 2017

Review: Thriller: The Bloody Meadow by William Ryan

Mantle, £12.99

If William Ryan's second novel isn't quite as remarkable as his arresting debut, The Holy Thief, that's largely because we're already familiar with a milieu and a main character that were startlingly original on first acquaintance. By any other criterion, however, it's an outstanding thriller.

Born in Limerick and educated in this country, Ryan worked as a lawyer in London -- where he now lives -- before completing an MA in creative writing at St Andrews.

For his first novel's setting, though, he eschewed both the Ireland and the Britain of his time, opting instead to conjure up Moscow at the onset of the Stalin purges in the 1930s and creating an intriguing hero in the person of detective Alexei Korolev -- a decent man who tries to ensure that his conformity to the system doesn't leave him fatally compromised by elements within that very system.

The reign of state terror continues in The Bloody Meadow, with Korolev again both the central consciousness and the book's conscience. Here he's dispatched to a film location in the Ukraine, where a young woman has been found dead in suspicious circumstances -- her supposed suicide complicated by the fact that among her lovers was the much-feared Ezhov, commissar for state security who wants the matter solved without anyone knowing of his involvement.

The possibility that Ezhov himself might have wanted the girl dead occurs to Korolev, though there are many other suspects to be found in the film location outside Kiev where most of the book is set -- including a baleful local police chief, two shifty journalists, a band of violent subversives and the writer Isaac Babel, with whom Korolev had become acquainted in The Holy Thief. In fact, the detective's only ally appears to be his feisty young female colleague Nadezhda Slivka.

This could be the set-up for an exotic Agatha Christie mystery, except that Ryan is so alert to the psychology of his characters and so persuasive in suggesting ominous political forces that the book transcends its mechanistic limitations -- the process of "putting facts together and producing possibilities from them", as Korolev sums up his job.

Indeed, putting facts together as he wryly notes, can be dangerous in a society such as that engineered by communism and ruthlessly pursued by Stalin, where paranoia infects most relationships and where betrayal and accusations of treachery can occur at any moment.

Korolev is constantly aware of this, reflecting towards the end that "how he'd managed to survive this long in a hard world was a mystery to him".

But he does survive and admirers of Ryan's troubled and wary hero will hope that he reappears for yet another outing.

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