I was given a bit of a shock several months ago when my preteen daughter came home from middle school and dropped the bombshell that historical fiction was currently defined as a work set during the mid-1960s or before. Say what? Where does the time go? My own internal definition of such novels is any work that takes place before I was born. Now that’s history.
THE HOLY THIEF, William Ryan’s debut, certainly fits my personal definition. It is set long ago (1936) and in a galaxy far, far away (Moscow). A gentleman named Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili (better known to the world as Joseph Stalin) was running the Soviet Union with an iron fist. He pressed a command economy upon the coalition of countries and bestowed the Soviet Secret Service and Intelligence (popularly known as the Secret Police) with unheard of power. If you don’t think this sounds like a wonderful place to be, you would be right, to judge from all anecdotal documentation. To all appearances, Ryan did yeoman’s work in researching Stalin’s era while writing THE HOLY THIEF; the narrative is shot through with chilling vignettes, some as subtle as a whisper, others as startling as a sledgehammer’s smash.
The unfortunate protagonist is Alexei Korolev, a police captain in Moscow’s Criminal Investigation Division (CID). Korolev is in the worst possible position: he is caught between those above him who will use any excuse to crush him in order to maintain power and those below him who will manufacture any reason to use him as a Judas goat to further their own standing. Ryan takes a familiar fictional motif --- the positioning of a good and decent man in a very bad place --- and runs well with it. The mission of the CID, and Korolev, is the investigation and prevention of criminal activity other than political offenses. As we see almost from the beginning, the lines between the criminal and political blur when every criminal offense is regarded as a political crime against the State.
Things seem pretty cut and dry, though, when Korolev is assigned to investigate the brutal torture and murder of a young woman whose body is found in an abandoned church. But things almost immediately begin to go awry when Gregorin, a feared staff colonel of the Secret Police, takes an untoward interest in the investigation. And when another body is found under very similar circumstances, the heat is on Korolev to conduct an effective investigation without treading too closely toward what he is told are state secrets.
The most deadly --- and subtle --- enemy Korolev faces is the general miasma of distrust and misery that appears to permeate Soviet society at every level. One cannot read this book without constantly recalling Winston Churchill’s statement that Communism spreads misery equally. Just so. The poor quality and limited availability of the basic needs of life --- food, clothing and shelter --- as presented here provide a subtle backdrop as Korolev proceeds with his investigation, one that leads him to consort with Moscow’s feared Thieves’ underworld as they join him in an unlikely and uneasy alliance that provides an answer to the “who” behind the brutal murders and, even more importantly, the “why.”
While THE HOLY THIEF is a dark book, Ryan peppers the narrative with some grim humor to keep things from becoming too stark. The star of the novel, however, is the plot, which provides a plausible, surefooted explanation for the motive behind the murders. And while Korolev is a capable protagonist, there is an unforgettable supporting cast as well, one member of whom provides an unexpectedly upbeat conclusion with the promise of more, hopefully to be seen in future successors to this work.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on November 3, 2011