Published in May, The Holy Thief was the launch novel for Macmillan’s new imprint Mantle, home to editor, Maria Rejt, the keen-eyed woman responsible for Colin Dexter, Minette Walters, C J Sansom and Sue Grafton, amongst others. It’s another novel set in Stalinist Russia – do not stop reading please – and, as I said for The Eye of the Red Tsar, deserves to be read on its own merits and not to be overlooked for fear it’s another one in the post-Child 44 trend entering the market this year. William Ryan’s The Holy Thief is an excellent read.
Opening with a scene of horrific torture leaving a dead woman lying in a deconsecrated church, the case is allocated to Captain Alexei Dmitriyevich Korolev of the Moscow Militia’s Criminal Investigation Division. Assisted by his young colleague Junior Lieutenant Ivan Ivanovich Semionov, Korolev soon discovers that the victim was an American citizen and this leads to the involvement of the NKVD, Stalin’s secret police tool of political repression feared by all. Korolev then finds his investigation ‘guided’ by the NKVD and his own actions and movements followed in detail.
In The Holy Thief we experience all the tensions of Stalin’s Russia: the need for unequivocal compliance to the new regime or threat of despatch to the Zone; the poverty and the queues for food; the unbelievably close living quarters; the threat to and from family’s, friends’ and colleagues’ actions. But within that we also have the optimism based on Stalin’s promises of change, infrastructure developments taking place all around and the ambition to beat the US as a global force.
All characters in The Holy Thief are well drawn and engaging, even the less appealing. And we have the occasional relieving input of humour, such as when Korolev and Semionov visit the compound to pick up a car to facilitate travels for their investigation.
Here’s a sample, where Korolev considers his colleague Larinin:
“Larinin looked like a pig in Korolev’s opinion, and the chipped and broken grey teeth that snarled between his fleshy lips looked like a pig’s teeth. His voice was higher than usual today, however, and Korolev noticed how the podgy fingers that held his cigarette were shaking slightly. He’s rattled, Korolev thought, looking at him, and wasn’t surprised. He was always careful of the bald investigator with the belly that spilled over the desk like a tidal wave, but today he’d be especially careful...”
The Holy Thief also has a forensic pathologist in its Dr Chestnova to challenge John Lawton’s Kolankiewicz in the not-to-be-messed-with-pathologists’ stakes. She may be a woman, but she packs a punch in both presence and assertiveness, leaving the feeling that you’d hope not to meet this lady in person, as a right hook may be as dangerous as her scalpel wielding hand.
A rather fine debut from William Ryan, The Holy Thief is not to be missed.