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.
And now, that promised word from our sponsors
Most of you are probably aware of the current subscription drive organized by members of our community. At the end of this year monthly subscriptions will no longer be available and lifetime subscriptions will come to an end. Although if purchased by December 31, 2011, lifetime subscriptions will continue to be honored.
According to Kos:Through the end of the year, we're going to be making a strong subscription drive. We need to continue staffing up to speed up development times and do the kind of cool things we want to do, like adding new verticals, bringing aboard more cartoonists, and directly supporting community projects like the Kos Katalog.The emphasis on dial-up is mine.
Subscriptions are cool -- they allow you to view an ad-free version of the site, which isn't just more attractive, but also downloads much quicker. It's a lifesaver if you're on dial-up.
We're also adding new benefits to subscribers. We'll be rolling out three new downloaded e-books for subscribers over the next three weeks.
And we're creating new subscriber features. The first such feature will be our image uploader and organizer, which will be ready by the end of Q1. It'll allow subscribers the ability to upload photos to Daily Kos and access photos uploaded by others (including the Daily Kos editorial team's). No more having to mess around with Photo Bucket or whatever.
If you already subscribe, look for others who are not yet subscribers but who could benefit from an annual or a lifetime subscription. Especially those with only dial-up internet access.
And now, back to our regularly scheduled program.
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.
And now a final word from our sponsors
And finally, if you are using a dial-up connection and are not currently a subscriber, please let us know, either here in the comments or in the comments of aravir's diary, linked above. There is something fine about a community in which those who have so much are so willing to share with others. And even finer that so many who don't have so much are still ready to share what they do have with others.
Personally, I would rather give a subscription to someone whose contribution to the community means something to me, than click the Donate button at the top of the page.