Book Review: The Holy Thief by William Ryan

The Holy Thief
William Ryan
Minotaur Books, September 2010
ISBN 9780312586454
Hardcover (ARC)

“I’m investigating the murders,” [Korolev] managed to say. “If it’s in my power, I’ll bring whoever committed them to justice.”

“Soviet justice?”

“It’s as good as any. The system may not be perfect—I’m not blind. These are eyes in my head. But we work for the future, a Soviet future. And it’s as fair as any damned justice system the capitalists ever lied about.” He could feel his leg trembling against the bale of hay. Was it anger or some other emotion? He wasn’t sure of anything any more. But if he didn’t believe the leadership weren’t working for the People’s future—well, where would he be? What hell would he find himself in then—if it all turned out to be a blood-soaked lie? He spat on the floor to ward off the thought, and then fumbled for another cigarette. He put it in his mouth, reaching for his matches, but Kolya had already extended a lighter.

“Thank you,” Korolev said, hearing the gruffness in his voice. He offered the Thief the packet.

“You’re an honest man. And you are a Believer, aren’t you?” Kolya seemed to be weighing him up.

“It’s none of your business.”

“Maybe it isn’t. But what if, at some stage, you have to decide between your loyalty to the church and your loyalty to Comrade Stalin. How do you think you would decide?”

In 1936 Moscow, as Stalin’s notorious Great Purge was heating up, Comrade Alexei Korolev is a battle-scarred, world-weary veteran who publicly swears fidelity to the Soviet Union and privately hides a Bible beneath a floorboard in his bedroom. A captain in the Moscow Militia’s CID, Korolev is charged with investigating the torture and murder of a young woman. It’s not an easy case to begin with, but when the victim turns out to be an Orthodox nun from America and then a second body turns up, Korolev realizes the stakes are far higher than he imagined. With State Security watching his every move, Korolev must seek the assistance of an American antiques dealer, the leader of Moscow’s criminal underworld, a wily street kid, and the writer Isaac Babel to find both the killer and the motive for the crimes. Eventually his leads take him full circle, back to State Security and the Soviet Union’s efforts to raise money by selling antiquities, including icons confiscated from churches after the 1917 Revolution. At the center of the mystery is the missing Kazanskaya, an icon believed to possess miraculous powers.

I’ll come right out and admit that I know next to nothing about Russian culture and society, much less about the short history of the Soviet Union (I turned to Wikipedia for a brief primer on the Great Purge, and it was through another review that I learned that Isaac Babel is a historical figure). Short of the “In Soviet Russia, books review you!” meme started by comedian Yakov Smirnov, I don’t even know enough about Russia in the 20th century to name popular clichés and stereotypes. That said, there’s something about The Holy Thief that seems off to me. For one thing, it has a very British feel to it, particularly in the repeated references to Sherlock Holmes and Korolev’s past as a football star. Perhaps Arthur Conan Doyle was a popular writer in Russia a century ago, and maybe football was as much a part of their entertainment as it is in England; I truly don’t know. But it doesn’t seem right to me.

Korolev is a bit of a tough nut to crack. He seems to be an amalgam of characteristics rather than a fully-fledge character. War veteran, divorced father who hasn’t seen his son in years, former football star, skilled detective, loyal Communist, clandestine Christian, respected by his colleagues, literary figures, football fans, Thieves, and street kids alike – and yet I feel like I don’t know him at all. I might say the same about the plot: all the different bits of intrigue don’t quite add up to a well-rounded story. In the end, I just didn’t find The Holy Thief or Alexei Korolev all that engaging.

Reviewed by Laura Taylor, January 2011.