Book Reviews

‘The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.’ Alan Bennett

“Many a book is like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of one’s own self.” ― Franz Kafka

Friday 17 February 2012

The Holy Thief - William Ryan

'These days it seemed everything in Moscow became dirty after a little while.'

It is 1936, and the setting is Moscow, nineteen years after the Revolution, and at the start of Stalin's Great Terror. The body of a woman, tortured and killed, is found in a church, and Captain Alexei Koralev of the Moscow Militia's Criminal Investigation Division is tasked with looking into the case. Although they are treating the murder as a criminal investigation, Korolev is asked to report details of it to Staff Colonel Gregorin, a member of the NKVD, the feared state security service, who dealt with political crimes. An interesting and mixed team of colleagues are introduced to us at the Militia's Petrovka Street headquarters, and Korolev is given junior lieutenant Semionov to assist him with this investigation. Semionov has only been with the team a couple of months and has an enthusiasm that Korolev is encouraged by, even if he has to temper it a little at times. 

The main narrative concentrates on Korolev's investigation, but there are a few short sinister episodes with the murderer, which are dotted within the story. The crimes relate to a valuable stolen Russian icon. The tense, nervous atmosphere of the times, and the overriding feeling of fear and suspicion amongst the population of the country at that time is captured here, where 'even the innocent were jumping at shadows these days.' 

Korolev is in his early forties, divorced, and good at heart. He genuinely believes in the Party line and their intentions for the future, but he also still quietly maintains his own religious beliefs. Shortly after he is first introduced, he visits his immediate boss, General Popov, to wrap up the previous case he'd been working on, and we learn more about his achievements and his character through the praise he receives:

'You did a good job here. An excellent job. Not the first time, of course. I give you all the hard cases, the crimes that look like they've been committed by ghosts, and yet you always find the devils and bring them to me. The highest conviction rate in the division and you don't even beat the confessions out of them.'

He is intelligent, methodical and thorough, and he is determined to find the real perpetrators, unlike one of his colleagues who 'argued that, even if they weren't guilty of the crime in question, the people he convicted were certainly guilty of something.' However, Korolev isn't soft and nor is he naive; he knows that when he is told to only report certain aspects of an incident to certain people, and no one else, that's what he has to do. There are events he is part of that can't be reported on, or he is told afterwards that they 'never happened'. During his investigations, 'he plowed his way through the grimy reality of Soviet life'. He encounters a whole range of characters from Moscow's underworld, from street children whose parents are likely to have permanently 'disappeared', to the Thieves - the criminals who dominate the underworld. He meets an American who has dealings with the NKVD, handling religious artifacts that are sold overseas, and he has to tread a fine line between uncovering the truth and getting in too deep with dangerous people as his inquiries move on and the evidence throws up some disturbing truths. 

This is an exciting and atmospheric historical crime novel with an intriguing plot and well-drawn characters. Moreover, the author has chosen a fascinating setting and period as the backdrop for the novel and then captured it convincingly, adding much authentic detail but never overwhelming the reader or holding up the plot. I found it a real page-turner; I was eager to read on. Captain Korolev is a very likeable, engaging, moral lead character and it's not difficult to want to root for him throughout. I will definitely be back to follow Korolev in his next investigation!


Thank you very much to the author for sending me a copy of this novel to read and provide an honest review.

Published by Pan and available to buy now in paperback and e-book formats.

You can visit the author's website to find out more about the investigations of Captain Korolev and find out a bit more about the background to the story.

The next book in the series featuring Korolev is entitled The Bloody Meadow (The Darkening Field in the US) and is available now in hardcover and e-book editions, and in paperback on 15th March 2012.

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