William Ryan

Mantle Hbk £12.99

Released: 7th May 2010

Reviewer: Ayo Onatade


Ayo Onatade is an avid reader of crime and mystery fiction. She has been writing reviews, interviews and articles on the subject for the last 12 years; with an eclectic taste from historical to hardboiled, short stories and noir films


William Ryan's début novel, The Holy Thief is a superbly accomplished historical police procedural, set in a Soviet Moscow of 1936, just at the commencement of Stalin's Great Purge.

When a baffling and grisly murder takes place in a church it is investigated by Captain Alexei Dimitrevich Korolev (formerly a member of both the Imperial Russian and the Red Army) now a divorced detective in the Moscow Militia. The murdered victim has been tortured very badly.  But why is State Security (NKVD) the forerunner of the KGB so interested in the case and what has it to do with the vast number of Russian treasures that are being sold off by a rich American?

As Korolev along with his colleagues investigate, he has to tread carefully as he finds himself in a struggle between the Chekists and the political police thus walking a fine line sandwiched between tracking down a merciless and vicious killer and not interfering with the principles of the obsessive and murderously distrustful communist party.

 1936, the Soviet Union, NKVD and Stalin?  This would normally make me apprehensive as I very rarely read anything set after World War 1.  However, The Holy Thief to my delight is an exception to the rule and an enjoyable exception. It is not often a début novel comes along that is as compelling as William Ryan’s The Holy Thief and what we have in this inspired début is a vivid recreation of Stalin's Russia just before the war. It is full of fascinating period detail and alive with both the nuance and the sledgehammer of the politics of Stalin’s Russia.

The sense of paranoia and mistrust is palpable throughout the novel and combined with the atmosphere of tense realism, and restrained insinuations of hidden menace it is what gives it its sense of place.  Ryan employs considerable skill in recalling this benighted era. Post revolutionary Moscow has been vividly described in all its grimy detail.  The Holy Thief is atmospheric, full of intrigue and enjoyable to read. Add to this good descriptive writing, characterisation plus a protagonist that you are interested enough in that you want to read about him again and you can identify why this is such an appealing book to read.

An assured début that bodes well for its sequel.






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