I think I’ve said in a previous post that I’m a big fan of historical mysteries but they have to be good. I don’t particularly mind which period they cover as long as the setting isn’t allowed to crowd out the other elements of a good crime read. An example of how the genre can be done well is The Holy Thief by William Ryan where intelligent plotting and a modern style of writing is used to depict bloody events in Salinist Russia.
At the book’s heart is Captain Alexei Korolev of the Moscow Militia CID. When a girl is found murdered in a deconsecrated Moscow church, he struggles with his sense of outrage at the brutality of the killing and the ramifications for his career and indeed his life when it becomes apparent that the Russian hierarchy are taking an interest in the investigation. The victim is identified as an American citizen with an interest in Russian icons and is therefore deemed ‘political’ by the Moscow NKVD, the forerunners of the KGB. As more bodies emerge, Korolev also has to delve into the word of the ‘Thieves’, the Moscow underworld with their trademark killings and twisted honour to bring the case to a resolution of sorts.
Set in 1936 Moscow at the start of Stalin’s purges, this turned out to be a different book than I had expected to read. Details of the purges were there, with even police officers fearing for their lives, but the focus of the book was on the Moscow underworld and, interestingly, the trade in icons being sent out of Russia. The role of the Orthodox Church during the Soviet era is something I know nothing about and the book details how Russian émigrés arranged for icons and other religious artefacts to be sold to buyers in the United States with the collusion of the Soviet state who wanted them removed. This aspect of the plot doesn’t dominate but I found it fascinating how Korolev struggles with his Soviet atheistic convictions and his instinctive respect towards holy buildings and artefacts.
The police investigation has its own twists and turns as Korolev is himself watched by the fearful NKVD and some police personnel die in mysterious circumstances. Korolev is an interesting character with plenty of room for development over future books. His relationship with the pathologist Dr Chestnova in particular is well done. But what made this book stand out for me was intelligent writing married to an interesting plot set in a fascinating period. There are a few brutal passages that I winced over but given the period setting and cast of characters did not seem gratuitous.
Thanks to the author for sending me a copy of the book. His website is here.