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Posts Tagged ‘Moscow police inspector’

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

A WHISPER TO THE LIVING by Stuart M. Kaminsky: Book Review

The recent death in October 2009 of Stuart M. Kaminsky left a huge void in the mystery world. He was the author of more than 60 mysteries, featuring four fascinating and different protagonists. His Toby Peters series features a down-at-the-heels private eye circa World War II who solve crimes involving such movie luminaries as Clark Gable, Gary Grant, Bette Davis, and Judy Garland. His Lew Fonesca series has as its hero a depressive process server in Florida trying to deal with the hit-and-run death of his wife. The Abe Lieberman series (the only one I’m not familiar with) features a Chicago police detective (called the rabbi) and his partner Bill Hanrahan (called the priest) as they walk the streets of the Windy City. And his Porfiry Rosnikov novels portray a Moscow police officer starting during the Soviet communist regime and continuing to present-day Russia.

A Whisper to the Living is the last of Mr. Kaminsky’s books about Rosnikov, who, in the words of the book’s jacket, is “one of the last honest civil servants in a very dishonest post-Soviet Russia.” The system may have changed in these post-communist times, but the struggle for power continues among those who have survived. Rosnikov is often given cases that no one else wants or will take, and very often his superior, known as The Yak, gives him a case with the unvoiced hope that he will fail to bring the perpetrator to justice if that would in any way bring trouble to The Yak or to the untouchables in power. The Yak, much as he admires Rosnikov, is willing to sacrifice him and his team if that proves necessary for his own protection and advancement.

In A Whisper to the Living Rosnikov and his team, as usual, are dealing with several crimes. The Maniac is a serial killer strangling mostly elderly men in a Moscow park; Ivan Medivkin, also known as The Giant, is a professional wrestler whom the police believe has killed his wife and her lover; and the detective’s team is trying to protect an English journalist investigating a story of prostitution in Russia. Kaminsky weaves the stories back and forth effortlessly, and his characters, both good and evil ones, are incredibly alive.

The death of Stuart Kaminsky was one of five in the past year that, in my mind, removed a major talent from this genre. The others are Philip R. Craig, author of the Vineyard mysteries featuring J. W. Jackson; Dick Francis, author of many stand-alone racing novels; Robert B. Parker, author of the Spenser, Jesse Stone, and Sunny Randall novels; and William Tapply, author of the Brady Coyne series that features a Boston lawyer. It’s painful to realize that we have either read the last works by these gifted writers or from now on we will read novels that are published posthumously. How lucky we were that they shared their literary gifts with us.

There is no dedicated web site about Kaminsky, but there are many interviews with him and reviews of his books available on the web.