Review: William Ryan – The Holy Thief

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.

The book has been reviewed by Bibliomouse, Mean Streets, The View from the Blue House and It’s a Crime.

Review: Rebecca Cantrell – A Trace of Smoke

Historical crime fiction can be a problematic area for me as the quality varies widely. It’s a genre that has expanded considerably over the last decade or so but I like to pick and choose my writers based on recommendations and favourable reviews. One writer I particularly enjoy is Philip Kerr, whose books featuring the inimitable Bernie Gunther evoke the tensions and mutual suspicions endemic in Nazi Germany.

In A Trace of Smoke, Rebecca Cantrell uses a slightly earlier period of 1931 Berlin as a setting for her murder mystery featuring crime reporter Hannah Vogel. Cantrell came highly recommended by a number of bloggers including Norman at Crime Scraps and Margot at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist both of whom have a good eye for quality writing.

Hannah Vogel is a crime reporter whose articles appear in the Berliner Tageblatt newspaper under the name of Peter Weill. When looking for inspiration for crime features, she visits the Hall of the Unnamed Dead at Alexanderplatz police station to investigate recent bodies discovered on Berlin’s streets. One Monday she studies the photographs of the weekend’s corpses and discovers the image of Ernst, her homosexual brother recently pulled from the Spree river. Determined not to reveal her connection to the body, she investigates the people in her brother’s life and discovers relationships that stretch to the highest echelons of Nazi society.

Her investigations are complicated by the arrival of Anton, a five-year-old orphan on her doorstep one evening. He claims that Hannah is his mother and that her dead brother was his father. And he has a birth certificate to prove it. However it is clear that Anton’s appearance is connected to her brother’s killing and soon events collide leaving Hannah to fight for her survival.

This was a very readable book with an interesting cast of characters and a well thought out murder plot. The character of Hannah Vogel was given a believable back-story, with an abusive father, an upwardly mobile sister and a brother who had spent his formative years hiding his homosexuality. Other characters were also well written, particularly Hannah’s friends Bettina married to a police officer and Sarah who has fled to America.

The writer has lived in Germany and she has used her knowledge of the city to good effect, with wonderful descriptions, for example, of the Jewish owned Wertheim department store and the decadent El Dorado gay club. It’s a Berlin that is different to Kerr’s even through some of the settings overlap but given that A Trace of Smoke  is set in the early 1930s, you can see the characteristics of early Nazism without it yet having reached its full expression.

I wasn’t too keen on the love story in the book. These parts veered slightly too much on the romantic for me but I’m sure would appeal to others. But otherwise it was a very enjoyable read with a very well thought out plot.