Last year, with William Ryan’s The Holy Thief, detective-fiction aficionados welcomed the thrillingly horrific first instalment in a new series set in 1930s Moscow.
Last year, with William Ryan’s The Holy Thief, detective-fiction aficionados welcomed the thrillingly horrific first instalment in a new series set in 1930s Moscow. In his first outing, Alexei Dmitrievich Korolev, a detective in the Moscow militia, managed to navigate the murky waters following the fall of Yagoda, head of the NKVD, and the onslaught of Stalin’s Great Purge.
Now, in the follow-up, Korolev has the dubious honour of being trusted as a safe pair of hands by Yagoda’s successor, Ezhov, who wants the police to investigate the supposed suicide of his ‘special friend’, a film production assistant. He cannot believe she killed herself and Korolev is despatched to the film-set in Odessa to find out.
Uncovering a murder is the least of Korolev’s problems. Was the mistress of the Commissar of State Security having an affair with a counter-revolutionary? If so, the person who reveals it to Ezhov is as good as dead. Add in complications that include gun-runners, turncoat Chekists and the Moscow King of Thieves himself, not to mention Korolev’s old neighbour, Isaac Babel, always ideologically unsound, and there appears to be no way of solving the crime without risking dozens of lives.
The Holy Thief was both bleak and savage — the opening scene, describing the torture of a young woman, is not one I would willingly read again. In an interesting change of pace which suggests the author has more than a formulaic series planned, in this second instalment Ryan has produced a film-noir-ish rewrite of the old-fashioned locked-room mystery, complete with creepily gripping, and ultimately gruesome, cops and robbers chase through the great catacombs on which Odessa sits, while Stalin’s man-made terror-famine, which scorched through the Ukraine half a decade before the book opens, is only gestured at, in elliptical speech and ultimately in the characters’ motivations.
Yet what remains constant is Ryan’s ability to display a foreign mindset while appearing to be entirely at home in the vernacular. His ear for dialogue is acute, finding that delicate balance between comedy-
foreigner and too-idiomatic English: ‘If you’re afraid of bears, you shouldn’t go picking berries.’ And for history buffs, spot-the-real-life-double is entertaining, as the set of the fictional film The Bloody Meadow stands in for Sergei Eisenstein’s lost Bezhin Meadow, also scripted by Babel.
But while this is amusing, Ryan’s primary purpose remains the serious depiction of the hellish hall of mirrors that was Stalinist Russia. The film of The Bloody Meadow tells the story of Pavel Morozov, the Young Pioneer who denounced his father as an ‘enemy of the people’. Acclaimed as a new hero for a new age by the Soviets, the boy was in reality immediately afterwards murdered by his family. Ryan’s unrolling of the mental gymnastics required to survive this upside-down world where the morning’s hero is the evening’s victim is both thrillerishly pacey while also allowing his characters to grow in moral stature.
Korolev is a decent man who believes his job is to find murderers. How not to compromise his integrity while still managing to stay alive is the question that consumes him, and by extension, all the citizens of the new workers’ paradise. Turgenev wrote:
Whatever a man prays for, he prays for a miracle. Every prayer reduces itself to this: ‘Great God, grant that twice two be not four.’
Korolev, a model Soviet citizen, has to will himself not to realise that twice two is not four as Stalin’s purges wash his country in blood.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated September 10, 2011