I love historical novels, especially historical crime, so I was thrilled when I was offered William (Bill) Ryan’s debut novel, The Holy Thief, which is set in Stalinist Moscow. I’d better start this review by saying that I know absolutely nothing about Russian history (unless you can count what can be learnt from watching Anastasia…), so was a little nervous that I wouldn’t really understand the context . However, I do have a Socialist boss who is a bit of an expert on Communist Russia, and who put up with a barrage of questions every lunch-time, which gave me a bit of background understanding. I should make it clear that it is entirely possible to thoroughly enjoy Ryan’s novel without any background knowledge, it’s just that I’m incurably curious!
Anyway, onto the review itself. When the mutilated corpse of a young woman is found in one Moscow’s old churches, Captain Alexei Dmitriyevich Korolev, a Criminal Investigator with the Moscow Militia, is assigned the case. The woman is identified as American by her dental work. What is left of her clothes are another indicator, as they are much finer than anything that was being produced in the Soviet Union at that time, a fact that Korolev notes ruefully. The fact that the victim was American immediately makes the case a dangerous one to be investigating; Colonel Gregorin of the NKVD decides that the case is political, and Korolev has to be even more careful than usual, watching everything he says and does. As the novel opens, one of his colleagues has just been sent to The Zone for making a political joke which was reported by another colleague, and the threat of the NKVD, the forerunners of the KGB, hangs over the whole city.
The plot takes Korolev and his junior Investigator, Semionov, from a meeting with an American antiques expert in Moscow’s finest hotel, to being taken to a secret rendezvous with Count Kolya, the head of the Thieves, Moscow’s underworld bosses. One of Kolya’s right-hand men is the second victim of the murderer, and he thus has a vested interest in helping the militia solve the murders. However, Korolev is never sure if he is being aided or led further from the answers – the Thieves are not usually ones to help the militia without a motive of their own, and Korolev soon finds himself being pulled in opposite directions by Gregorin and Kolya, unable to report half of the conversations that he has with suspects and unable to know who to trust.
Korolev, a former soldier who fought in both the German War and against the Red Army, is full of contradictions which make him a more interesting character than the average detective. He is a loyal Soviet citizen who firmly believes in Stalin’s promise of a great new nation, but he despairs of the poverty that he sees in and around Moscow. He starts every day with prayers and keeps his most treasured possession, his bible, under his floorboards, but he accepts that the regime has outlawed religion and deconsecrated all churches. He admires the rebuilding that is going on as Moscow expands but misses the old alleyways and dark corners of his youth.
The Holy Thief has plenty of passages which give a feeling of authenticity to the novel: a football match between Korolev’s old team, Moscow Spartak, and their rivals Dinamo Moscow, and the altercations which ensue are written with verve and energy; the atmosphere of tension and worry which surround the Militia headquarters, and indeed Korolev’s whole investigation could be seen as representative of the feeling in the whole city at the time of Stalin’s Great Purge; the awkwardness of sharing an apartment with someone you’ve never met is clearly shown, but so is the feeling of privilege in only having to share with one other family, and having one’s own bedroom, rather than just a bed in a communal room. Korolev is given a room in a prestigious area as a reward for solving a vicious rape case, and it is seen as a definite step up in society.
I really enjoyed The Holy Thief, both for the writing, which is concise yet descriptive, and the atmosphere. It’s sparked an interest in Russian history and I can’t wait to read The Bloody Meadow, the second in the series. Bill Ryan has created a fine character in Korolev, and I hope that he has a long career ahead of him.
This book was provided as a review copy by the author, but I was not paid for my review, and the views expressed are mine.