ElCicco #CBR4 Review #37: The Holy Thief by William Ryan
This is the first in what promises to be an excellent detective series from Irish writer William Ryan. His protagonist, Captain Alexei Dmitriyevich Korolev, is a detective with the Moscow Militia’s Criminal Investigation Division in 1936. That little tidbit of information alone had me hook, line, and sinker. I love detective novels and I have a PhD in Russian/Soviet history (actually did my dissertation on early Soviet prisons and penal theory). I knew I would either love this book or hate it. It’s love! Ryan’s bibliography at the end shows that he did smart up-to-date research on politics and life in Soviet Russia on the eve of the Great Purges. I also really liked the way he portrayed Korolev as a man who believes in the Soviet system but slowly begins to question some things and knows that his own neck is on the line as he investigates a series of brutal torture/murders that seem to somehow involve the NKVD — Stalin’s secret police.
The novel opens with a description of the torture and eventual death of a woman in a church told from the point of view of the torturer. Whoever the woman is, she is refuses to talk. The identity of the torturer is also a mystery, but he has been given sanction to torture the woman to death from “the highest levels.” When the body is discovered the next day, the case falls to Korolev, but he soon receives contact from Col. Gregorin of the NKVD and the criminal case becomes a complicated political case. Korolev has to walk a tightrope between the criminal and political divisions of law enforcement to find the killer(s).
Ryan has created a great group of supporting characters for Korolev to work with. His CID boss General Popov is respected by his men but has been accused of a lack of vigilance by political enemies. The coroner Dr. Zinaida Chestnova and crime scene photographer Gueginov can tease details from a crime scene and a dead body that the average investigator might miss. Count Kolya is the “prince of thieves” in Moscow. Korolev’s sidekick Lt. Semionov seems very young but has interesting contacts around the city. The lovely Valentina Koltsova and her daughter Natasha share a flat with Korolev and are wary, given his occupation. And renowned writer Isaac Babel happens to live in the same building and helps Korolev in unexpected ways.
I absolutely love how Ryan shows street life in Moscow 1936. His description of the scene at a soccer match was brilliant, from the details about the architecture of the Hippodrome, a grand building falling into disrepair, to the gangs of youths trying to crash the gates. Ryan also nails criminal culture — how thieves rank themselves, interact with each other, their code, if you will. There is a passage on thief tattoos and their significance that is fascinating. Ryan also addresses the very real problem of orphans in Moscow in the ’30s, the result of political arrests that left children with no family and no home. Gangs of abandoned children banded together on Moscow streets and supported themselves through crime or else died of starvation and exposure. And no crime novel would be complete without some sort of chase scenes. My favorite is at the end of the story and involves a hot pursuit dangerously close to the annual parade celebrating the October Revolution, wherein large inflatable balloons representing life on the collective farm (think Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade) are released into the skies.
If you enjoy detective/crime novels, this is a good choice. The Holy Thief was shortlisted for several crime fiction awards. If you aren’t familiar with Soviet history, this is a well researched introduction to a regime known for its oppression and brutality. It looks like the second book is already out, too: The Darkening Fields (US version of The Bloody Meadow), also shortlisted for some awards.