If I had to describe Darkness at Noon in one word (why would I ever have to do this? It’s not important), I’d call it “brooding.” The book details the imprisonment and confession of Nicholas Rubashov, a member of the communist old guard who has been accused, somewhat arbitrarily, of crimes against the state.
The majority of the novel is set in Rubashov’s cell, where he communicates with his neighbours using a tap code, and the interrogation room, where he undergoes questioning by two men: Ivanov, an old friend who retains some sympathy for him, and Gletkin, a younger man who represents to Rubashov the changing face of the party he helped build. The action briefly flashes to other times and places, mostly through Rubashov’s recollections of events that are being used against him in the accusation.
The story is lean, slow, and meditative, with most of the action occuring inside Rubashov’s head as he reflects on his situation and explores his shifting attitudes towards communism. Koestler’s creates a rich and conflicted character in Rubashov, a man too intelligent to buy the absurdities of communism, yet nevertheless dedicated to the movement and not yet ready to disavow it. At the start of the book, Koestler provides a brief note explaining that Rubashov is a composite of many individuals who were purged during the Soviet show trials of the late 1930s, and this authenticity bleeds into the narrative.
The prose was rich and engaging, full of sumptuous images that chronicle Rubashov’s inner and outer turmoil. It’s worth noting that the English version of the novel is actually a work of translation, despite appearing on the Modern Library’s Top 100 Best English Language Novels of the 20th Century. I imagine it was deemed to qualify because Koestler’s original manuscript (written in German) was lost, and Daphne Hardy’s English translation was the first version to see publication. I question whether it counts, personally, but translation or no, it’s an excellent novel, and the psychological richness of Koestler’s account cannot be denied.