Digging into Russia's dark past

FICTION: KEVIN SWEENEY reviews The Holy Thief William Ryan Pan, pp 320. £7.99

FICTION: KEVIN SWEENEY reviews The Holy ThiefWilliam Ryan Pan, pp 320. £7.99

LIKE ALL cops, Alexei Korolev dreads being assigned to a case with political implications that might draw the wrath, or even the passing attention, of his higher-ups. But Korolev has to be particularly cautious: it is 1936 and he is working as a detective in Moscow. Josef Stalin and paranoia reign supreme.

A hard-working colleague of Korolev’s has already disappeared, presumably to “the Zone”, after cracking a joke deemed to be anti- Soviet. So the warning bells ring loudly for Korolev when the routine, if gruesome, murder he is investigating turns out to have a victim who is not only a foreigner, but a nun.

This debut novel by London-based Irish author William Ryan is on the shortlist for this year’s Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award where he is pitted against four other contenders who are all high-profile writers: Joseph O’Connor, Emma Donoghue, Neil Jordan and Claire Keegan. The winner will be announced at Listowel Writers’ Week in the first week of June and Ryan’s absorbing page-turner is a worthy contender.


The mystery at the heart of The Holy Thiefis intriguing, with unflinchingly graphic descriptions of torture and murder. But it is Ryan's details of life in the bad old USSR that make the story so engrossing.

Moscow is being rebuilt, with the ancient city of “secrets and smells, courtyards and alleys, corners and hideaways” ripped up in favour of wide avenues and “giant new buildings, solid and practical”. People fleeing famine in the countryside have squeezed into every available space, with many forced to sleep in trams or on the metro. Even in the city, police find bodies of people who have starved to death.

Above all, Moscow is nervous. Neighbours denounce neighbours. A policeman who suspects a doctor is delaying an urgent autopsy questions the doctor’s class background.

Street children whose parents have disappeared run wild. When Korolev knocks on a door in his new apartment building while wearing his police uniform, the man who answers demands to know what lying scum has reported him. Actually, Korolev simply wants to collect his new keys. The only person who is not afraid is an old lady, who tells politically incorrect jokes. “What are you going to do, arrest me? I’m 83 years old and, anyway, I’ve been to prison before. It’s not so bad.”

Korolev himself is a likeable character, full of internal conflicts he prefers not to examine. He says daily prayers and takes comfort from the Bible, yet accepts the regime’s disdain for “the Orthodox cult”. He’s a former soldier who hates the sight and smell of blood. He sees injustice and inefficiency all around him, yet cheers for Stalin. He reflects that “being a good Communist these days was like following an arbitrary God who required you to believe that white was white one day and black the next”. Yet “Korolev believed in the Party line absolutely, even if it required a leap of faith to do so”.

The Holy Thiefcould double as a guide to austerity: Korolev receives food parcels as part of his wages, is assigned to share an apartment with strangers, and hopes that, one day, the production of soap will become an economic priority.

Ryan says the major inspiration for The Holy Thiefwas Isaac Babel, the distinguished Russian Jewish playwright and short story writer who, though a loyal Soviet citizen, was arrested, tortured and executed during Stalin's Great Purge.

A longtime fascination with Babel's stories, collected in Red Cavalryand The Odessa Tales, led Ryan to finding out more about the early Soviet Union and the Terror, in which Babel died. Ryan even writes the literary grandmaster into the plot by having Babel provide underworld contacts to the dogged Korolev. He's one of several real-life characters peppering this drama of a revolutionary society already crumbling and sliding inexorably into 1984-like paranoia and dread.

KEVIN SWEENEYis an Irish Timesjournalist