There is a great book club in my native Wales, called CardiffRead. They meet once a month and communicate electronically in between. This month they are reading William Ryan’s The Holy Thief (Minotaur, New York, 2010). I bought this book to join, long-distance, in their discussions.
It is a brave man and a daring writer who would set a detective novel in Soviet Russia in the year 1936, particularly if he is neither a Russian nor a bona fide scholar in Russian history. In his “Author’s Note,” William Ryan makes only the modest claim that he has done his best “to recreate Moscow accurately in this book.” The Holy Thief is a very gripping, very disturbing, very well-written piece of fiction. Does it matter whether William Ryan really presents an accurate picture of Russia in the terrible days of the 1930s purges or not?
Perhaps it is because they were such terrible days that it seems to matter. I often found myself asking as I read, is this real? Is this the way people thought and talked in the days when many still hoped for a new and better world under Communism, even while they were suffering agonizing poverty and deprivation and, in innumerable cases, undeserved persecution? I haven’t enough knowledge to answer the question myself, but Ryan certainly conveys a vivid impression of bitter cold, of poverty, of misery, of unspeakable cruelty, and in the midst of it all he creates an amazingly likable, even admirable, police-detective, Captain Alexei Dmitriyevich Korolev of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Militia, who comes to life as a man struggling against great political odds to pursue the ends of justice as he sees them.
I read the horrific opening pages of the novel thinking I couldn’t possibly go on reading it, such was the degree of gruesome cruelty described. These pages are italicized to set them off from the rest of the narrative , and they do what many murder mysteries do: They present the reader right away with the murder on which the whole mystery rests. The scene described in these pages is, however, so hideous a portrait of torture that ever after on the occasions where I saw italicized pages cropping up in the novel, I dreaded them and wanted to skip them. But they are crucial to the development of the plot, so somehow, with half-closed eyes, I skimmed through them. I imagine that these pages would make the novel unreadable for some readers. I dislike the thought that they might make the novel attractive to others. But there they are, and they are only one example among many in this novel of man’s inhumanity to man that characterizes Stalin’s Russia as shown here.
Uninitiated readers may well find themselves, as I did, looking up a number of the characters to find out who was a historical figure and who was not. Of course, we know that Isaac Babel, who figures prominently in the plot, was a real writer, and we can easily find out that various other minor figures are too, such as Yagoda whose statue is removed from the Petrovka Street headquarters in the opening chapter of the novel and who really was head of the Security Service, later discredited, denounced and executed. Even Stalin himself makes a cameo appearance in Ryan’s mean streets. The mixing of real and fictional names add a certain authenticity to the story, but can be problematic. How does one to react to Babel, for example, as a lively, sometimes almost comic, character in a fictional plot when at the back of our heads is the knowledge that Babel himself was tortured and executed in 1940?
Ryan is setting out to give as much realistic detail and background as he can. In the opening chapters, he delineates gradually and cleverly the various Soviet agencies and social entities involved in the plot: the People’s Militia, dealing with “everyday” crime, the NKVD, the secret police dealing with state security, their strong-arm men, the Chekists, and then on the other side the criminal element, opposed to the Soviet State, and preying on it as well as preyed on by it, the Thieves. He interweaves the religious element in some of its complexities: The communist policeman, our Korolev, is himself a believer, as are the vicious representatives of the underworld, the anti-communist Thieves. Ryan manages to make all this clear without footnotes, his explanations incorporated naturally into the narrative. The persnickety reader may turn back from time to time, as I did, to sort out the patronymics, to check on who people are, which side they seem to be on, but less than half way through the book one has it down, and can concentrate on the plot.
It is a mark of Ryan’s strength as a story-teller that in such a context, he engages our interest in the personal relationships of Captain Korolev, the ups and downs of his investigations and the gradual uncovering of particular murderous villains in a generally villainous time. There are enough twists and turns in the plot to satisfy most mystery readers who like to be tested in their ability to track down and identify the villains. And when all’s said and done, Korolev is a big enough and likable enough character to carry the action convincingly through all the horror, and all the wealth of detail in the scene-setting. I ended up wanting to see Captain Korolev at work again.
If you have ever sensed a moral dilemma in “enjoying” a fictional mystery based on the horrific act of murder, then you will perhaps feel this dilemma intensified in such a powerful novel as this where the mystery is rooted in one of the gigantic horror stories of history. But this is a moral dilemma of the armchair variety. The one faced by Korolev himself is a matter of life and death: How to deal as a policeman with seeming evidence of criminality in the state system to which he owes personal and professional allegiance, deeply rooted in principles nurtured through a lifetime of defending the Soviet Union in war and in peace. What will William Ryan do with Korolev’s dilemma, as the thirties grind on into more and more terrible times? This is the question that will definitely bring me back to his second novel though I quake at what I may find there.
A stunning debut, a five-star novel qua novel, whatever its standing as a historical study, great for a book club, food for more than a month’s thought and discussion.