The Holy Thief – William Ryan

Title – The Holy Thief

Author – William Ryan

Published – 2010

Genre – Crime fiction

Despite the setting being Russia rather than Iceland, this forms part of my reading in advance of Iceland Noir. William Ryan will be appearing during the festival on the “A Sense of Time and Place – now and then” panel with his Russian hat on (although perhaps not literally!).

This was Ryan’s debut and is the first in the series featuring Captain  Alexei Dmitriyevich Korolev. Set in 1936 this is a glimpse of Stalinist Russia from the inside. The book opens with the brutal murder of a young woman in a deconsecrated church, her body left on the altar. Korolev is assigned to the case but quickly suspects that it may be a poisoned chalice. Not only could the victim be an American but the case has attracted the interest of Colonel Gregorin of the NKVD – added pressure for Korolev who believes that it should be the State Security who pursue the investigation.

I have to confess that this period of Russian history is one that I know next to nothing about so this was my introduction to an extremely harsh world. Ryan is obviously incredibly knowledgeable about the period but fortunately he credits the reader with some common sense, ensuring the pace of the story isn’t derailed by explanatory passages. Nevertheless, I learnt a lot about things as varied as the construction of the Moscow metro, Soviet football, criminal tattoos and the Russian underworld.

Korolev is a very engaging character, a veteran soldier he is trying to be supportive of the new Russia but can’t completely leave behind his Christian upbringing. He seems to have a more realistic view of the efforts of Stalin and the Five Year Plan than is perhaps good for him and there is a pervading sense of tension as the wrong word can have dire consequences.

The historical period, location and subject all conspire to make this quite a grim read but Ryan manages to imbue Korolev with a wry view of the world that manages lighten things with a little humour.

You can see another review of this title at Killing Time.

At least I feel safe in assuming that while Iceland could be as chilly as 1930’s Russia, Reykjavik should prove to be a lot more hospitable!




  1. Sue – I’m very happy you liked this one as well as you did. I think Ryan did a terrific job here of depicting pre-WWII life in Moscow, and the mystery itself is credible and engaging. I can also recommend the next two in the series.

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