The Holy Thief by William Ryan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A grisly murder. A Russian Detective in Moscow handed a hot potato of a case he knows he shouldn’t take. Especially as it’s 1936, you’re 42, your boss is Stalin, and he’s getting twitchy… But what are you gonna do? A nice new flat, is a nice new flat, no matter where it is, who you have to share it with and who might have just been kicked out of it to make way for you. When you’re in favour, you learn to take what you can get, ask questions later and hope the answers are what your bosses want to hear.
There’s been a murder. A horrible one (you’re going to need some steely nerves, to read about the murders and murderer here), a ritualistic-looking murder in a deconsecrated church. In Moscow, of all places. Where religion isn’t supposed to exist. Or is frowned upon at the best, can be bad for your career as well. Not something you shout about, or cross yourself while others are looking. But Korolev is a patient, careful, diligent and methodical man. A model Soviet citizen, by the looks of it (“The highest conviction rate in the division and you didn’t even beat the convictions out of them”). However, he prays to the God the Soviets say doesn’t exist. Just to be on the safe side, as it were. So, a mutilated woman is the case facing our Alexei Dimitrevich Korolev of the Criminal Investigation Division of the Moscow Militia. A case he knows is going to lead to problems and him into trouble. A case he knows he should run away screaming from. What could possibly go wrong? Oh yeah, the woman turns out to be an American. And the NKVD, the most feared of the most feared services in the new worker’s paradise that is the early Soviet Union, are involved. But don’t want any one to know. Unless they are crossed. But they’re not going to tell you when that is.
The story builds slowly, the investigation takes time to get going. This is both because an investigation like that, at that time, would have taken time to get going, but also because William Ryan is (in case you didn’t know it) getting started on a series of books about the investigative skills of Captain Korolev. So there’s a lot of background work to be put in. About him and about the Russia he was working in. This is done very well indeed. It did remind me of Sam Eastman’s ‘Red…’ series I’ve read a couple of. They are perhaps even more bleak than these and his Inspector Pekala has been a favourite of the Tzar’s before becoming involved under Stalin. Korolev is further down the revolutionary pecking order, isn’t working so closely with Stalin as Pekala, for example, and I don’t remember if William Ryan described his pre-Revolution background. Maybe that’s to come. Both are detectives and both are determined to solve the crime from the point of view that a murder has been committed, someone is responsible and they have been tasked with finding the perpetrator. They want to solve the crime without it spilling over into political recriminations. Though of course, in Soviet Russia of the 1930’s, that is largely out of their hands.
Korolev is totally a product of the Revolution. He supports it, enthusiastically, not in the ways you’re thinking, but perhaps more in its original principles and aims. Though I get the feeling, that William Ryan has intended that Korolev is behind the Revolution for what he, Korolev, thought it was for and would lead to. He hasn’t quite got to grips with what it became under Stalin. He is realistic and he sees signs of course (“The hotel might be owned by the People, but that didn’t mean the People were crazy enough to visit it”), he’s not an idiot and not blind, but seems still to be operating in something of a Revolutionary ‘glow.’ That’s the impression I got from his character anyway. It’s one I look forward to seeing develop in future Korolev stories. Other comparisons, in terms of the level of assimilation into Russian/Moscovian life in the 1930’s under Stalin can and should be made with the masterly work of David Downing. While Downing is of course in Germany before and during (so far for me) the Second World War, that is only a couple of years later than when this book is set, don’t forget. While I don’t think William Ryan is up to David Downing levels just yet, but he shows all the signs of getting there, quickly. I can’t praise the book higher than that.
It really felt a little like the start of a series, where there’s a lot of background and character work to be done and the story, or the danger/excitement/tension levels suffer a little as a result. Having said that, the scenes in the Lubyanka prison and some of the various confrontations were extremely tense and very well done. If anything, it showed that in Stalin’s Russia, at that time anyway, the criminals were a lot more dependable, predictable and honest in a way, than those working for a better future for the proletariat.