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Posts Tagged ‘1936’

THE HOLY THIEF by William Ryan: Book Review

Welcome to the world of post-revolution, pre-World War II Russia. It’s not a healthy place to live, it appears, from William Ryan’s debut novel.

Captain Alexei Dmitriyevich Korolev is the police inspector in The Holy Thief. He’s a loyal member of the new Soviet republic, a member of the Moscow Militia’s Criminal Investigation Division.  Although the CID is technically involved only in the investigation and prevention of criminal activity, in the Soviet Union of 1936 everything is political.

And when Korolev is assigned to investigate the brutal torture and murder of an unidentified young woman in a former Orthodox church (the church has become a Komsomol recreational and political agitation center), the political aspects of the crime become visible almost immediately.

Reading this novel is almost like taking a course in 20th-century Russian history.  The country is still reeling from what they call the German War (World War I to us) and, of course, the Revolution. Food and shelter are incredibly scarce, but the people are putting up with it because of the anticipation of a glorious future just around the corner.

There’s a strong sense of walking with Korolev through the dark, cold streets of his city, the detective wearing a slightly too tight coat several seasons old and a pair of felt books, valeni, to keep his feet warm.  The housing shortage is vividly portrayed too, with Korolev being very fortunate, due to his outstanding arrest record, to be allowed to move into an apartment that he has to share “only” with a young widow and her daughter.  But, of course, the high officials of the Party have taken over the former residences of the assassinated royal family.  The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Korolev is a loyal citizen and an excellent investigator, but it’s hard for him to do a thorough job when his next step may be the wrong one. The case gets stranger when the body of the woman murdered in the former church is identified as a Russian-born nun who has lived in America for most of her life.  Her murder is quickly followed by the murder of a Thief, a member of the Moscow Mafia, whose tattoos on nearly every part of his body tell the story of his life both behind bars and outside.

Korolev is a wonderful character. He is decent and loyal to the state, but he is no innocent.  He’s aware of the brutalities and corruption that exist in the new government.  But what is harder for him to accept is that someone within the Party, perhaps one of his own superiors, is involved in this spate of killings, which soon add third, fourth, and fifth victims.

At a time when religion is outlawed in Russia, the inspector is still a believer, although of course a secret one.  And when he uncovers the fact that these murders are related to the Kazanskaya icon, the most revered holy object in Russia, it’s a double blow. The Madonna and Child icon was thought to have been destroyed, but what if it wasn’t?

William Ryan’s novel is a page-turner and The Holy Thief is obviously the beginning of a wonderful new series.

William Ryan doesn’t appear to have his own web site as yet, but you can read a very brief biography of him at