Cover image of "The Holy Thief," a novel set in Stalin's Soviet Union

With The Holy Thief, William Ryan joins Martin Cruz Smith (the Arkady Renko Series) and Tom Rob Smith (the Child 44 Trilogy), whose compelling crime novels have illuminated the dark recesses of Stalin’s Soviet Union (or, later, Russia).

However, Ryan’s new contribution is set not in the 1950s, the 80s, or more recently, as are those of the two Smiths, but in the 1930s during the peak of Stalin’s wide-ranging purges of the Communist Party and the military. It’s unusual for a novel to include a list of sources, but The Holy Thief ends with a long one, testament to the thoroughness with which Ryan approached his subject. The picture that emerges is much darker than those painted by the two Smiths — which is only natural, since untold millions died on Stalin’s orders in the 1930s.

What’s most distinctive, and most rewarding, about this engrossing novel is the adroit way Ryan conveys a sense of the pervasive paranoia fostered by Stalin’s reign of terror. The abject poverty of the USSR comes through clearly as well. Yet all of this is shrugged off by all but a handful of freethinkers. Virtually everyone else is convinced that the Soviet system will triumph under the brilliant leadership of Josef Stalin and all will be well in a future Communist state. Judging from the popularity of Vladimir Putin in today’s Russia, it’s not hard to believe the acceptance of Stalin’s lies. Putin doesn’t have on his hands the blood of millions, and his government falls short of totalitarianism, but the kleptocracy over which he presides matches the scale of Stalin’s regime.

The Holy Thief (Captain Alexei Korolev #1) by William Ryan ★★★★☆

Stalin’s Soviet Union is a grim place

The story is complex. It’s 1936. A young woman turns up the victim of a gruesome murder in one of the few churches left standing in Moscow. Detective Captain Alexei Dmitriyevich Korolev of the Moscow Militia’s Criminal Investigation Division is called to the scene. (The Militia, the Soviet counterpart to Scotland Yard, is the junior partner to the much-feared NKVD — predecessor to the KGB — within the state security apparatus.)

Shortly after undertaking his investigation into the baffling crime, Korolev is approached by a Colonel Gregorin, one of the most senior officers in the NKVD. Gregorin volunteers the information that the murdered woman is of Russian birth but American citizenship. She is an Orthodox nun, Gregorin explains. It soon transpires that the nun was apparently part of a conspiracy to steal a highly prized icon and spirit it away to the US, safe from the predations of the Soviet government. Then a second murder victim, a Thief, surfaces at a soccer stadium, clearly butchered by the same person. (The Thieves are a tightly knit network of murderers, rapists, and other violent criminals who essentially run the prisons in the Gulag and lord it over lesser underworld figures in Russia’s cities.) Somehow, the two murders are connected — and Korolev must figure out how.

The Holy Thief is suspenseful and full of surprises. Any fan of crime novels, detective fiction, or thrillers — or, for that matter, historical fiction — will likely find this book rewarding.

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