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.