The Holy Thief

Written by William Ryan
Review by Jasmina Svenne

Moscow 1936. When the mutilated body of a young woman is found on the altar of a deconsecrated church, Militia Captain Alexei Dmitriyevich Korolev is asked to investigate. But when the victim is identified as an American, the dreaded NKVD becomes involved. Soon Korolev’s loyalties and sense of duty will be tested, as it becomes increasingly difficult to know whom to trust…

In many ways Korolev fits the mould of the tortured detective – haunted by his experiences of WWI and the subsequent Civil War, divorced, missing his son and regarded by his colleagues as something of a maverick because of his insistence on catching the true culprit of each crime, instead of fitting up someone vaguely suitable.

But Ryan is too talented to reduce his characters to stereotypes. Korolev is a believable product of his time: not a Party member, but still striving to believe that things can and will improve under the current regime.

Ryan captures the pervasive fear of Stalin’s reign, where even a joke amongst friends can lead to denunciation and exile to the ‘Zone’. Readers of a squeamish disposition might want to skim the more gruesome scenes, but the grimness of the setting is leavened by humorous exchanges between Korolev and the more feisty characters he meets, including a gang of streetwise urchins. An impressive debut.