Russian Winter, Summer Tears
Perhaps it’s growing up in SoCal, but I’m always interested by the film industry. The day to day of it. It’s like a part of my childhood still there. Screenings on the backlot. Mike Jittlov filming in a ratty theatre on Western Boulevard and humping costumes. William Marshall sitting on my uncle’s couch after the Saturn Awards. That odd world where you work, and yet things are just a little off kilter. It’s a little bit brighter. The world writ larger, and yet at the same time, just a little bit smaller, more comfortable as well. And I enjoy the film in my fiction too. I love SoCal, and with it I love that weird subcategory of film and novels that run with it. DEATH IS A LONELY BUSINESS and A GRAVEYARD FOR LUNATICS are my favorite Ray Bradbury novels. STATE AND MAIN is my favorite David Mamet. I suppose that means there’s no accounting for taste, but I can’t help it. Perhaps it’s my own nostalgia for my youth come to the fore.
Willian Ryan’s THE DARKENING FIELD doesn’t take place in Hollywood, or even in the United States. Hollywood is mentioned a few times in passing. But is a book about film. Set in and around Odessa, the Soviet Union, in 1937, Ryan’s novel revolves around the mysterious death of a young vivacious woman attached to an important State film in production. Drawing on the true story of the ill-fated filming of BEZHIN MEADOW by Sergei Eisenstein, and featuring the real life author, Isaak Babel as a minor character, Ryan portrays a word of corrupt government politics, underground thief societies, the dark history of the Soviet Revolution, and yes, the film community. Korolev, the Muscovite detective, is drawn from his home to investigate a murder perhaps, a suicide perhaps, a deep political conundrum definitely, far from his normal stomping grounds. A previous case has put him on the radar, the wrong radar he rightly fears. What follows is a tangled mystery equally tied up in the politics of fear as it in the actual murder that takes place and its underlying causes. In many respects, Korolev finds himself more threatened by the Soviet system itself than he is by any of the criminal element and murderers he faces.
As the second book in a series, Ryan deftly paints Korolev in an opening prologue closing his current case. There is no need to read the first book to enjoy; we are deftly put into the Soviet Union of 1937. It’s nice to read a series detective novel that doesn’t kill the reader with baggage, while still giving further insight to that those who have read then. It can be daunting to, as they often say in Lee Falk’s Phantom, “those who came in late”, but Ryan shines at that. The reader immediately feels what it is to be in Korolev’s skin. It’s not comfortable. It’s a shifting world. The second chapter sets the tableau with its softly menacing Chekist and the grim outline of the incident in Odessa, a carnival of grotesques and shifting tones. Where no one is who they appear to be, nothing is insignificant, and paralleling that, nothing is significant either. It’s sifting sand through the fingers.
Ryan’s real skill comes in his painting of the 1937 Soviet Union and its transient past that constantly intrudes. The ghosts of revolutions past truly haunt very character in THE DARKENING FIELD, from Korolev on down to the smallest character. There’s no nostalgia attached to the story, only grim remembrances and stark recriminations. Everyone has buried their past. Some quite literally as the book progresses, but all of them – the film crew, the detectives, the criminal underground, the apparatchiks – have buried themselves to be a part of the present. Ultimately, of course, it is these buried pasts that erupt into murder, weapons smuggling, and the corruption of the soul. Pasts never forgotten, only submerged, rise to the surface, bog monsters, shambling shibboleths.
Does it matter who committed the murder? Not really. Their fates are more monstrous than their crimes. It can be said that all the characters are more monstrous than they deserve. Korolev is praised and damned in the same breath for a job well done, his work drawing him further into the skein of the Soviet machine. There is no satisfaction in solving the crime, only a sigh of relief. He has passed through the gauntlet. Today.
Going back to my original draw to THE DARKENING FIELD, I wish there had been more to the film aspects of the book. It is more window dressing and backdrop after the opening third. Perhaps that was part of the plan. Ryan positions it so that 1937 Soviet film-making is the same as any other business, just a business, and a business for the State. Same as making tractors. Workers, not artists. It was somewhat disappointing though to see it fall away, especially after the opening interrogations of the cast and crew. These characters disappear, becoming like Hollywood, a passing flurry in the wind.
However, in terms of atmosphere and tension, Ryan more than compensates. The layer of pre-Soviet politics that rises to the surfaces is well-handled and plays a significant role in the book. The detective aspects, the cerebral side of fingerprinting and crime scene protection as it is evolving is intriguing. Especially the focus in Korolev’s antipathy towards the autopsy is an interesting counterpoint to his scientific styled detection. Modernity may solve, but it’s not nice and clean.
There are currently three Korolev novels from William Ryan. If the other two as interesting as THE DARKENING FIELD, they are worth seeking out. One more older work, this from 2012, to search out. Check out Ryan’s website: http://www.william-ryan.com/ for further insight into his Soviet detective.