by William Ryan
Soviet Russia in the 1930s, full of paranoia, party politics, and life or death situations is the setting for William Ryan’s first novel. The Holy Thief, a novel following the detective work of Captain Alexei Korolev, delves into the crime world of Stalin’s reign where the line between upstanding citizen, murderer, and thief no longer exists.
When an American nun’s body is found on the altar of a deconsecrated church in Moscow, Captain Korolev and the rest of the Criminal Investigative Division are called on to solve the murder. As bodies pile up, it becomes clear to Korolev and his colleagues that the death of the nun is not an ordinary murder. When the case begins to take on a political dimension the secretive and feared organization, NKVD, becomes involved causing uncertainty to build. Korolev’s life is on the line and with each new clue Korolev begins to question who in Moscow is really to blame — the thieves or the government.
From the first page with the killer’s inner dialogue during the death of the nun, Ryan captures the reader with vivid imagery and the communist-capitalist dichotomy. Ryan does a great job of capturing Soviet Russia through descriptive settings and high powered emotions. Ryan’s characters express fear and paranoia along side unwavering nationalism and pride. Soviet emotions are so lucidly captured that, at times, it felt as if I were back in Russia hearing personal anecdotes from citizens. Whether it is the long lines waiting for a loaf of bread or the suspicious look neighbors gave to each other, Ryan spares nothing in portraying Stalin’s Moscow with historical accuracy.
In The Holy Thief, the plot stays true to the title by exploring the relationship between faith and the secular Stalin state. The reader witnesses Korolev’s struggle between his beliefs and the required secularism. Through Korolev’s thoughts and furtive signs of the cross, the reader begins to understand the difficulty people must have faced in publicly relinquishing their religion and watching churches and icons be desecrated. Ryan captures this inner battle between church and state so well that it plays into the question of — who is the true “bad guy”?
For his first book William Ryan has done a wonderful job. He created a captive plot and an amiable main character in Captain Korolev. It will be interesting to see where Ryan takes Korolev next in this budding crime series. Stay up to date with Ryan on his developing website and be alert for new books about Alexei Korolev (I know I’ll be picking up the next book due out in September).