“Well, Comrade Colonel, it wasn’t pretty. Not pretty at all. He used electricity to burn her–I’ve never come across that before. I wondered whether it was a method State Security had ever encountered.”
Korolev’s question hung in the air like an artillery shell at the top of its flight and Korolev didn’t have to look at Yasimov to know he’d now gone deathly pale.
Gregorin, however, after a long pause merely sighed. “Comrade Korolev, you’ll be well aware that torture is prohibited by the Soviet Criminal Code as a means of interrogation. You aren’t suggesting that the NKVD would ever flout that prohibition, are you?”
Source: Bought copy.
Publisher: Minotaur Books
Publication Date: August 31, 2010
Captain Alexei Korolev is a well-regarded detective within the Criminal Investigation Division of the Moscow Militia. He’s a rising star within the C.I.D., having just come off a case in which he tracked down and apprehended a serial rapist, so when a young woman is found brutally murdered—tortured—and left posed on the altar of a derelict church, his superiors put him on the case, knowing he has the best chance of solving her murder. Korolev is methodical and relentless, using his mind rather than brute force to elicit confessions, bolstering his resolve with both a fine sense of duty and empathy for the victim. He’s also a modern Soviet man, convinced that while the methods of the State are sometimes unnecessarily harsh, it’s not his place to question why but rather to go about his business and remain as apolitical as he can. After all, it’s safer that way.
When a Chekist colonel with his own suspicious agenda takes an interest in the case, coupled with the circumstances of the young woman’s torture—reminiscent of interrogation methods used by the Soviet Secret Police—Korolev realizes that this extraordinary case is a tangled web that he must most carefully unravel without incurring the wrath of an utterly ruthless organization. But what is the connection between a young girl and the State security apparatus? And what is her connection to a thief whose body turns up shortly thereafter bearing wounds that share the same hallmark? Discovering the truth of the matter will be no small feat. One small misstep and his life, and that of those around him, will be forfeit to a paranoid regime that values secrecy over life.
With The Holy Thief, William Ryan has created not just a compelling mystery but a stunningly realistic portrayal of the subtle horror of everyday life under the Soviets. Ryan has set his story in 1936, just before the advent of the Great Purge, in which Joseph Stalin’s cronies “cleansed” both the Communist Party and government of what they considered to be, “enemies of the people.” This purge later evolved into wide-scale repression of the peasantry and eventually gutted the Red Army leadership, leaving them ill-prepared for war with Germany in 1941. When the novel begins, things have not progressed to that point, yet Korolev and his compatriots in the C.I.D. are very conscious of the danger involved in any perceived criticism of the State or its methods.
There are several themes woven into The Holy Thief, most importantly the interaction of personal Religion and State sponsored Atheism. As our protagonist, Korolev proves himself time and again to have an ingrained respect for and belief in religion, but as a modern Soviet man, he’s theoretically an Atheist. Reality is more complicated. Religion may be banned under the Soviets, but the traditions and faith of the people remain a hidden yet omnipresent fact of life, and Korolev goes to great lengths to hide his personal belief. He secrets a bible in his apartment, unconsciously uses religious phrases and looks upon the desecration of the church by the Komsomol with disgust, even while extolling the virtues of Communism. It soon becomes obvious that the vicious crimes he’s investigating are connected to the value people put on religious artifacts, specifically, the religious Icons that hold sway over a society firmly rooted in belief in the supernatural.
The second major theme running through the novel is the ubiquitous fear pervading Soviet society under the reign of Stalin. The citizens of Moscow are living in a time and place where the State intrudes into every facet of life and with that intrusion comes the realization that everyone, from lowliest peasant to highest official, could be taken at any time for any reason by agents of State security. This fear is highlighted in the relationship between Korolev and his superior, General Popov. It’s a sure sign of the overwhelming power of the State when a man of such an important position within the city militia is fearful of speaking bluntly to a subordinate in the nominal privacy of his own office. Yet both Korolev and Popov have seen the results of appearing critical of the party or its ideology, and by the end of the novel Korolev has experienced it directly.
As for the characters of The Holy Thief, they are essential to the appeal of the novel. Korolev, for instance, is refreshingly real. He’s not the superhuman detective that inhabits many mystery novels. He’s intelligent mind you, but not overly so. Nor is he a superhuman physical specimen. When hit, he suffers the consequences, and they stick with him. Hell, in the latter half of the novel, he’s dealing with the physical, sometimes debilitating effects of a self-inflicted concussion. He’s also a morally conflicted character, witnessing the excesses of the revolution but still ideologically naïve enough to believe that these excesses are necessary to further the cause of international Socialism. I will admit that he is surrounded by somewhat stock characters. The earnest rookie, embodied in his protégé, Semionov, the consummate lickspittle, embodied in Larinin, the wizened superior, embodied in Popov—all stock mystery characters, yet their familiarity to the reader is not detrimental to the story. If anything, they lend a certain authenticity to Korolev, being personalities we’ve all met at one time or another. As for Gregorin, the Chekist colonel, while it’s easy to see him for the villain he is, Ryan manages to keep his motivation a secret until late in the novel and leaves the reader wondering what his role in the dastardly affair is.
I don’t usually feel the need to comment on world-building with regards to mysteries, generally saving it for talk of Sci-fi or Fantasy novels, but it must be examined for a moment here. Ryan has managed to build a convincingly realistic portrayal of Soviet society and specifically that of Moscow in the late thirties. From the Metropol Hotel to Tomsky Stadium, home of FC Spartak and one of the novel’s murder locations, Ryan has paid close attention to detail, right down to the team’s nickname. Accurate portrayals of Petrovka Street and the Moscow Criminal Police headquarters, the Komsomol club in a former church on Razin Street and the novel’s central crime scene, even the scene in an interrogation room of the dreaded Lubyanka lend a ring of historical accuracy to the novel. One cannot be help feeling immersed in the life and times of a certain Captain Korolev, right down to the specific model of cars driven and the brand of cigarettes he smokes.
The Holy Thief is a beautifully constructed novel of what can only be called Soviet Noir and a wonderful introduction to the life and times of Alexei Korolev, investigator of the Criminal Investigative Division of the Moscow Militia and whose exploits I look forward to in the next novel of the series, The Darkening Field.