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Suspicion, hunger, and overcrowding were facts of life in Moscow in 1936 when a woman is brutally tortured, killed and left on the altar of a de-sanctified church. Captain Korolev, still a Christian believer who hides his bible under the floorboards of his room, is assigned the case.  The clues lead him to consult with the Thieves, a tightly organized sub-class of Moscow that, of course, does not officially exist, but whose members all sport identifying tattoos.  His suspicions lead him to a place he doesn't want to go.

More below the fold.

Captain Alexei Dmitriyeich Korolev works for the Criminal Investigation Division of the Moscow Militia - the Workers’ and Peasants’ Militia as it was formally titled.  A large man, who looked much like a police officer should look, with eyes “kind and warily amused” that “saved him from looking like a bruiser.”  Korolev, a veteran of the Red Army, had “fought his way from the Ukraine to Siberia and back again for seven long years, against Germans, Austrians, Poles and anyone else who pointed a gun in his direction, and come through all of it more or less intact.”

After solving the last baffling crime, Korolev has been rewarded with an upgrade in his living quarters. This means that instead of sharing a room with his cousin, he will have his own bedroom in an apartment that he will share with a widow and her young daughter in an upscale part of Moscow.   But the joy that should have been experienced from this well earned reward is overshadowed by the uncertainty that is part of life in the Soviet Union of October, 1936.

Hard times still grip Moscow with overcrowding and food shortages.  The roads in the capital city are filled with more horse-drawn carts than automobiles and one five year plan follows another while the people queue up at stores for whatever food is available.  

Fear is felt by all government employees, as well as civilians that fall of 1936.  Stalin had started his show trials in August, and one of those most involved in prosecuting officers of the Red Army was none other than Genrickh Grigoryevich Yagoda, the head of state security which includes the NKVD as well as the militia. It is his statue that is coming down in the lobby of the headquarters building as the novel opens.

Few knew when a seemingly harmless joke could be overheard by a fellow worker who would then use it to send one to the Zone and profit by the betrayal.

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Korolev displays a strong faith in his forbidden religion, and can’t help crossing himself when faced with another death in a church, or making the sign against evil while his hand is hidden in his pocket. At the same time, he maintains a purity of faith in the future of his political state.  I don’t know if the author intended it, but I was struck by the unreasoning nature of faith, the need to believe.  In something.

“I’m a criminal investigator, Citizen.  I find bad people who have done bad things and I put them in a bad place.  What of it?  As for Soviet society, it’s getting better.  We know it isn’t perfect.  Comrade Stalin tells us as much.   It’s in the nature of Bolshevik self-criticism to recognize its current flaws.  It’s where we’re going, not where we are.”

And on the Soviet justice system:

“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 wan’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?

We, of course, know that it was a blood soaked lie.  But he didn’t. He fought to believe in the greater good that Communism could achieve.  Almost in spite of what he saw around him.  Unreasoning faith.

During the Bush Presidency I found myself increasingly biting my tongue with social acquaintances, or speaking out and regretting it later.  After all, he was the President, elected or not.  Common politeness and a belief in letting the system work caused my silence. I now wonder how far it is from silence to mouthing empty slogans and addressing others as “comrade” or “citizen.”  It wasn’t hard for me, after the initial shock, to accept that people in Moscow in 1936 actually did use these terms of address.

Nor was it difficult to accept that they use the term “the Zone” to describe the gulag that was established in Siberia to house the prison labor that was provided by enemies of the state, real or imagined.

William Ryan, although not a Russian or Soviet era scholar, did a lot of research on Moscow of the 1930s, reading diaries, journals and memoirs, including that of Antonina Pirozhovka, wife of Isaac Babel, studying photos of the time, and what maps of Moscow were available (not many).   The Library Journal did an excellent interview with the author.

As a mystery, it works, barely.  It doesn't have the complexity of Martin Cruz Smith or the deep understanding of the Russian people displayed by Boris Akunin.  But it is engaging and presents an interesting view of life in the early days of the Soviet Union.  

His next novel, The Darkening Field (original title was The Bloody Meadow) is due out on January 3, 2012 and follows Captain Korolev as he travels to Odessa on a case with political overtones.  The fact that I have pre-ordered it shows that I enjoyed The Holy Thief and am willing to stick with this detective for at least one more outing.

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Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Mon Dec 12, 2011 at 04:07 PM PST.

Also republished by DKOMA and Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Monday Murder Mystery, a weekly series for those (23+ / 0-)

    who love a mystery.  And love talking about a mystery.  

    To allow those who have not read the book a chance to enjoy it, please use the word SPOILER in the Subject of your Comment if you wish to discuss the ending or any plot element that might give it away.

    And I am always looking for anyone who would like to contribute a diary for this series.  Think of it, a chance to wax lyrical about your favorite detective, series, genre, writer, book or whatever.  Or the opportunity to tell us what you really think of that stinker you wasted your time on last year.

    Feel free to volunteer in the comments or drop me a private message.

    There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. - Elizabeth Warren

    by Susan Grigsby on Mon Dec 12, 2011 at 03:49:11 PM PST

  •  Thanks for another great diary (8+ / 0-)

    You are broadening my horizons and I appreciate it.  :)

    Join us at Bookflurries: Bookchat on Wednesday nights 8:00 PM EST

    by cfk on Mon Dec 12, 2011 at 04:33:02 PM PST

  •  You got to me. I (7+ / 0-)

    subscribed. Thanks for the nudge and the diary!

  •  I read The Holy Thief (5+ / 0-)

    and thought it was pretty good.  I'll look for Ryan's new book next month.  

    I just finished On Beulah Height by Reginald Hill, after reading Emmet's diary last week.  I still can't say Hill is my favorite author, partly because I really don't like his characters all that well.  I also finished Sue Grafton's
     V is for Vengeance.  That's the first one I've really liked in her series for a long time - there's a lot more plot that doesn't revolve around the main character, and that's a good thing IMHO.

  •  Can You Tell Me a Little about the Author? (5+ / 0-)

    I ask, because I think it would be difficult to achieve authenticity w/o some experience or close-hand knowledge of the Soviet system and state in Uncle Joe's era.

    For instance, even a believing Christian such as Capt. Korolev could hardly make the sign of the cross at any occasion where there's a risk of anyone seeing.

    Are the books very atmospheric -- do they carry a pall of weariness, or of Marxist heroics, or of commune-al socialism?  1936 Russia was bleak -- they were suffering terribly from both their own communist leadership's attempts to create a new economic system and the worldwide depression that didn't only affect capitalist countries.  [Wasn't it worse in the USSR?]

    If the books are representational of that period, I think I'd find them very depressing.  At the same time, the idea of reading a police procedural in that setting is certainly intriguing.

    Readers & Book Lovers Pull up a chair! You're never too old to be a Meta Groupie

    by Limelite on Mon Dec 12, 2011 at 05:47:20 PM PST

    •  What was strange about this book was that it (5+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Limelite, hazey, aravir, scilicet, ladybug53

      wasn't really depressing.  It felt like a day when the sky is overcast but the sun still provides a lot of light.

      I thought about the world wide depression of the 30s while reading the descriptions of the city and the scarcity of goods.  People lined up for hours to get a loaf of bread.  None of this was glossed over, but it wasn't dwelt upon.  And Korolev maintains his hope for the future that brightens the gloom.  In this excerpt he is going door to door questioning residents:

      He plowed his way through the grimy reality of Soviet life from one end of Razin Street to the other.  Primus stoves missing from the communal cooking area, drunkenness in Metro Workers' Dormitory Number 12, a single mother's string of male visitors:  it would be better soon, he hoped, for the next generation anyway.

      And yes, I am guessing it was worse in the USSR than it was elsewhere due to the war which lasted for seven years.  They were just getting back on their feet as a nation.

      And Stalin was purging the Party of Trotskyites and other enemies so it wasn't a pleasant place to be.  Korolev actually made the sign of the cross while his hand was in his pocket.  I should have made that clearer.  There was no open expression of religious belief.

      Ryan was a lawyer who got a masters in Creative Writing from St Andrews.  And although he did visit Moscow, most of his research was done in libraries.  He admits that the Soviet Union made research difficult as so much of what was printed was propaganda.  Also, they didn't print many maps.  Ryan had to use the CIA's publicly available maps from the 70s and photos to reconstruct Moscow of 1936.  It was the photos that revealed the absence of autos in the capital.  And memoirs and diaries of the time.  The Library Journal interview is worth reading for more background on his research.

      After reading it, I did do a little research on the events mentioned, like the purges, and Ryan is pretty accurate.

      It is an interesting police procedural without the overwhelming angst and depression that I found in Henning Mankell's Faceless Killers.  

      There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. - Elizabeth Warren

      by Susan Grigsby on Mon Dec 12, 2011 at 06:26:05 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  And I should add a quick bio note from the (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Limelite, hazey, aravir, ladybug53

      Amazon book page:

      William Ryan is an Irish writer, living in London. His first novel, The Holy Thief, was shortlisted for The UK Crime Writer's Association "New Blood" Dagger Award, The Irish Fiction Award, a Barry Award and The Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award. If you'd like to know more about William and Captain Korolev visit

      There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. - Elizabeth Warren

      by Susan Grigsby on Mon Dec 12, 2011 at 06:32:47 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Sorry, Susan (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Susan from 29, hazey

    A few months back, I read four pages of Holy Thief.  End of story.  I tend to be impatient unless it is an author I know.

    I see that you have reservations, too, so I feel in good company.

    Just waitin' around for the new Amy Winehouse album

    by jarbyus on Mon Dec 12, 2011 at 07:28:01 PM PST

  •  This book sounds interesting. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Susan from 29, Limelite, scilicet

    Onto my list!

  •  another mystery series set in Russia (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Susan from 29, ladybug53

    is Stewart Kaminsky's, with Moscow police inspector Porfiry Rostnikov. I've never heard anything but highest praise for this Edgar-winning series. And he was one of the nicest humans ever to walk to the earth, I think. I got to spend a week with him and other writers in Cuba a long time ago, and every conversation with him was a treat. He definitely did his research, spent a lot time in the places he wrote about etc.

    Thanks, Susan from 29, for this series. Always look forward to your posts.

    "The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don't." Douglas Adams

    by scilicet on Tue Dec 13, 2011 at 09:09:16 AM PST

    •  I was trying to think of the name of that series (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      last night!  Wanted to sample one on my kindle, and I knew about the series but couldn't think of the name of the character or author.  Thank you vey much.

      Glad you are enjoying the diaries!

      There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. - Elizabeth Warren

      by Susan Grigsby on Tue Dec 13, 2011 at 09:41:16 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Susan, thanks again for this series (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Susan from 29

    which I really enjoy though usually I come late. Right now having fun making Christmas gifts and letting my reading slide but after these distractions will think about what I could contribute as a diary a few weeks into the new year.

    Something to consider here might be a schedule, tentative even, of future diaries so people have a chance to read a book in advance.

    MMM's has made me realize more than before how huge this genre is today! We not only have different genres within the genre of mysteries--thrillers/historical/cozy/procedural etc., but then ones written in different countries now available in English and ones written over time. I wonder how many published novels are classified as mysteries.

    "extreme concentration of income is incompatible with real democracy.... the truth is that the whole nature of our society is at stake." Paul Krugman

    by Gorette on Wed Dec 14, 2011 at 02:25:04 PM PST

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