William Ryan

The Holy Thief

"The Holy Thief is a very good starter to this series..."


It is Moscow in 1936 and the body of a young woman has been found dead on an altar like some gruesome sacrifice. The blue-eyed boy of the Moscow militia, Alexei Dmitriyevich Korolev, has been handed the case as he is known for always getting his man. But this case has bizarre overtones. The girl is of Russian descent, but has American nationality. Not only are the officials perturbed by this news, but also by the fact that the girl was severely tortured before being put to death. Marks on her body indicate that she was electrocuted to extract information - but what information?

The NKVD – the most feared organisation in Russia which has been credited with making people vanish without trace - become involved. With information from the NKVD, Alexei appears to have a faint trail as to why the girl was killed and what the men were looking for. Then a man is found dead, mutilated and tortured in the same way. But this man was one of the legendary Thieves, a syndicate of men who run the Russian underworld.

Very soon, Korolev feels he is out of his depth and he is sure it is not his imagination, but he is being followed. As he finds himself deeper in the case he begins to suspect that not only can he not believe the words of the underworld, but also those who call themselves his colleagues. Everyone, it appears has a secret to hide. And soon enough, Korolev is fighting for his own life.

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I am sure that others think it, so I will write it and get it out of the way: after Child 44, it was only a matter of time before we would get more crime novels from this period of Russian history that was so steeped in fear and suspicion that neighbour turned upon neighbour, friend upon friend, just to save their own skin. It was a tragic time and one that saw the Russian people go through such purgatory that you couldn't imagine it happening today. But in different parts of the world it does. So, we now have a sub-genre created and William Ryan's is the first to emerge. Is it worthwhile? I felt that Ryan has a great sympathy and empathy for the country as a whole. The way the characters address and speak with each other - always seeming to keep other people at arms length - is well drawn in this novel. The sense of place and the emotions of the characters involved and their feelings of frustration and hunger grip you and bring to life a very sorry picture of people starving and yet frightened to say their lives are a misery. As for the main plot of the novel, it cantered along nicely and kept my interest although I felt I knew where the story was headed. However, Ryan's ability to bring Korolev, with his meagre belongings, to life is extremely strong. You cannot help rooting for a man in his early forties when he feels wonder at being given a room of his own – even when he head butts a man, giving himself concussion at the same time! The Holy Thief is a very good starter to this series and I can see that there are certain avenues that Ryan will be exploring and embellishing in future novels. I look forward to seeing what Ryan has for Korolev in the future. For some reason I don't think Korolev will be sailing in the sunset any time soon.

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