Darkness at Noon is the best-known work of Hungarian-born British writer Arthur Koestler. It was published in 1940 during World War Two and speaks far louder about Koestler's feelings of disgruntlement and disillusionment with the Russian government of the late 1930s than he ever dared to himself. In fact, Koestler's general air of vagueness about the identity of the governments he is writing about gives the book a heightened sense of the symbolic, despite the fact that it was based on real people and real events.
The novel is set in 1938 during the Stalinist Great Purge, a campaign of political terror and repression in Moscow that purged the Communist Party officials and a repression of wealthy peasants. There was wide-scale surveillance by the Government and everyone who was considered a counter-revolutionary was watched. Mobile gas vans were used to conduct mass executions without trial. Joseph Stalin (named Number One in the book) ordered a series of Moscow Trials against suspected Trotskyites and right-wing members of the opposition party. As a result of these purges, many, like Koestler, were disillusioned by the Communist Party but reluctant to openly oppose it.
Koestler voices his opposition in generic terms, referring to the Soviet government as "The Party" and to Nazi Germany as "The Dictatorship". The original novel was written in German and was the second in a trilogy, the first of which was written in Hungarian, and the third written in English whilst Koestler was living in London. It is widely believed that the title is taken from a novel by Victor Hugo, which alludes to the unnatural darkness that fell at noon on the day that Christ was crucified. It was almost never published at all; in fact, it was feared lost. Koestler and his partner, Daphne Hardy, escaped in haste from Paris in 1940 to avoid the German occupation of France, and to escape, too, collaborators amongst their group of friends. Fortunately, a copy had already made its way to a publisher in Switzerland. Koestler himself joined the French Foreign Legion believing that Daphne Hardy had already been killed, and later attempted suicide.
The novel was exceptionally well received and critics agreed that of the many books published during this turbulent period in history, this one would actually stand the test of time. They were right; in 1998, sixty years after Koestler penned the novel, Modern Library ranked Darkness at Noon at number eight on its list of 100 Best English Language Novels of the Twentieth Century.