To Defend USSR… Domestically

I have a great love of Russian Lit. The “Russian Soul” is one of the great cultural gifts from the nation. For this reason, I regard anything written about Russia by a non-Russian with a healthy dose of skepticism. So, when I read reviews of British born William Ryan’s Alexei Korolev series comparing him to Martin Cruz Smith, I was intrigued, but hesitant.

From the very first page of The Holy Thief, Ryan captures the feeling of a USSR gripped by fear of Stalin’s Great Terror and the NKVD (precursor to the KGB). Citizens fear Soviets in any uniform, and the men in uniform fear their coworkers. One report, real or invented, could send you to Siberia or worse- if there was a fate worse than the frozen prison labor camps. Trust is almost nonexistent.

Under this fog, Korolev is brought in to investigate the brutal and grotesque murder of a young women found in a former church. From the onset, the case attracts the interest of higher ranking Soviet officials, which means great accolades if he is successful or a very likely trip to the Zone if he fails. When it is revealed the victim was an American and the CIA enters the picture, the stakes become much higher.

As the pressure mounts on Korolev, the oppressiveness of Stalinist Moscow becomes even more stifling. For me, it was difficult to read at times. Having read numerous personal accounts of Russia at this time, it was easy to imagine what his neighbors were experiencing and what happened to the unlucky who were shipped off the Zone.

Korolev finds himself looking outside official channels for answers. It is the Thieves, the dons of Moscow’s underworld, who offer him information vital to the case. The Church and the Thieves are both undesirable in the new Soviet era, a fact the secretly faithful Korolev must come to grips with throughout his investigation.

In the end, cliched as it sounds, no one is who they seem to be. Ryan reveals the duplicity in such a way that the final dénouement is not an all encompassing but a slow revelation through certain events.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who likes historical fiction, mystery or general, and lovers of complex mysteries.

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A Look at Thirteen Reasons Why

Usually, I let a book stew for a few hours, or even a couple days, before I write about it. Tonight, I was to write about a great new mystery I read two nights ago. With a very late, light dinner done, I feel I must ignore my mystery for one more day and write about Thirteen Reasons Why.

Thirteen Reasons Why begins with Clay Jensen emotionally drained after a night of listening to seven mysterious tapes delivered to his house the night before. To his surprise, the tapes were recorded by Hannah Baker, a classmate who recently committed suicide. Hannah begins her recording, thirteen tape sides, by telling the listener if they received the tapes they played a part in her decision to kill herself.

Clay, who had always admired Hannah from afar, spends a gut-wrenching night listening to Hannah explain in her own words the events that led to her decision to take her own life. In the end, he is left to question what he could have done differently and why Hannah didn’t see the people who wanted to help.

Like Clay, I spent an entire night with Hannah’s story. Also like Clay, I could not stop once I started- even skipping dinner until the last page was read. As an adult, I struggled with the lack of scope. Asher did succeed in making me understand her depression and hopelessness. I am not so old to have forgotten how awful it can be to be a teenager and feel no one knows what you are going through.

We live in a time when campaigns like “It Gets Better” are trying to reach out to young people who feel alienated and alone. Asher’s book is a beacon for those who struggle and those who want to understand.