Stalin and the city
A successful Irish corporate lawyer in the City of London gives it all up to pursue a career as a crime writer whose stories are set in Russia at the time of Stalin’s Great Terror, who would believe it? Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction William Ryan tells KEVIN COURTNEY
FOR AN IRISHMAN, William Ryan’s knowledge of Soviet Russia is impressively vast – if the whole novel-writing thing doesn’t work out, the Limerick author could go on Mastermind with that period of history as his specialist subject. Several times during our interview, the conversation veers off down several arcane side-streets of Old Moscow, as Ryan highlights another little-known facet of Soviet life. We must sound pretty odd to casual listeners, chatting amiably about collectivisation, Soviet sci-fi and the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, as though this was just your average Dublin pub conversation.
But though Ryan has set his two novels to date, The Holy Thiefand The Bloody Meadow, in Stalin’s Russia, that doesn’t mean he’s planning to make it his permanent creative home. “Soviet Russia isn’t my entire life,” Ryan assures me. “I’ll definitely write something else at some stage, in another area. But I like writing historical fiction, because you can pick your time and place.” Soviet Russia in the late 1930s is somewhere you wouldn’t want to spend a nanosecond, never mind your entire life. But it’s as good a place as any for the lawyer-turned-writer to set out his literary stall: in the increasingly crowded arena of crime writing, the Limerick man may have found himself a cosy fictional niche. After all, there can’t be that many London-based Irish authors writing crime thrillers set in Russia during Stalin’s Great Terror.
The Holy Thief, published in 2010, introduced readers to Capt Alexei Dmitriyevich Korolev, a dogged detective with the Moscow Criminal Investigation Department, who must solve a politically motivated murder while keeping his own head below the parapet. He’s an ordinary plod, meticulous and thorough, working in an extraordinary time: in Stalin’s Russia, fear reigns supreme, and every line of inquiry could lead the detective on a one-way trip to the gulags. To complicate things, Korolev secretly holds firm to his Orthodox religious beliefs while outwardly supporting – and collaring enemies of – the Revolution.
The Holy Thiefgrabbed plenty of accolades on its publication, and found itself on a few short- and long-lists, including the Crime Writers Association’s New Blood Dagger, Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award, and the Irish Fiction Award (the latter was won by John Banville). Its follow-up, The Bloody Meadow, once again features Korolev, this time investigating a murder on a film set – and once again treading on political eggshells.
Korolev has been compared to Arkady Renko, the brooding hero of Gorky Parkand other novels by Martin Cruz Smith. But while Renko operates in contemporary Russia, Korolev’s milieu is an altogether more bleak vision of Russia, with the monolithic shadow of Stalin looming over all, and the rumbling of war thrumming ominously in the background.
Ryan, who worked as a lawyer in the City of London, has, within the pages of his two novels so far, managed to rebuild the former Soviet Union in all its utilitarian self-glory – it’s the oppressive atmosphere, doublespeak, authentic characterisation and stark, concrete settings as much as the plot and narrative that draws you in and keeps you believing in this brave old world.
HE BEGAN VISITING RUSSIA during the late 1980s and 1990s, and witnessed the country making the abrupt transition from one system to another. He still visits Russia regularly to map out the locations for his Korolev novels; he’ll be going there again later this month to research the third novel in the series. “It helps if you walk the ground, so to speak,” he says, and proudly holds up a recent acquisition: a Moscow tourist guidebook from 1937. He opens the book at a double-page advertisement spread showing a smorgasbord of meat products – more food than an average Soviet family at the time would see in a year. “I mean, that’s food pornography!
“I did do a lot of research,” he admits, “and I do try not to put too much in that I’m not pretty sure of. But in the end of the day it’s a novel – it’s not a work of history. You want to have it there behind the novel, but you also want to keep your research off the page, but still give a feeling of complete authenticity.” Ryan’s research will soon be put to the ultimate test – having already been published in several countries, The Holy Thief is about to be published in Russia, and Ryan is bracing himself for a spate of missives from the motherland pointing out glaring errors in geography and history. But Ryan is confident that his storytelling skill will make up for any factual inaccuracies, and happy that his serial detective is proving popular – a third Korolev novel is in the pipeline. But for him the biggest inaccuracy is that the books will, of necessity, end up being filed under crime fiction.
“I think when you talk about genres as such . . . I can understand why publishers do it, but I think at the end of the day it’s whether you write a good book or not. I think a lot of crime writing is very, very good, and it’s a shame that it’s put into that category, particularly if you look at Irish writing at the moment. A lot of the good Irish writing, if you look at Adrian McKinty and Stuart Neville and Ken Bruen, you could list 50 writers who are putting out really good stuff, and it’s a shame that you have that kind of genre thing.” For Ryan, working within the crime genre solved a conundrum – how to write about one of the blackest periods of Russian history while still telling a gripping and entertaining story.
“You have this society in which the truth is almost non-existent, and justice is pretty ephemeral as well. And crime – what is a crime? In the Soviet Union, there were crimes that weren’t crimes anywhere else in the world, and criminals and murderers weren’t punished the way political criminals were. So a crime novel – and I don’t actually like that term – a novel which covers a criminal investigation is actually a good way to approach the Soviet Union.”
Ryan’s parents were both from Limerick – his father was an artist and poet, his mother an architect. His parents separated, and though young William grew up in Limerick, he spent a lot of time in London, California and Saudi Arabia. He recalls his mother and stepfather getting arrested in Saudi Arabia when he was just 11. Their crime? Venturing into a port. “Women aren’t allowed into the ports – who knew?”
He went to St Gerard’s in Bray and Glenstal Abbey in Limerick, then “stumbled” into law at Trinity College. When he graduated, he did what many self-respecting young Irish job-seekers did in the 1980s – he bought a one-way ticket to London, where he quickly found gainful employment, not as a barman or a brickie, but as a barrister.
“At the time it seemed like a good thing. Rumpole of the Bailey was on the TV, so it looked like a nice cushy life with lots of claret and port. But it wasn’t really for me. But I did end up as an in-house lawyer, through one of those networks at the time where one Irish person would get into a firm, and suddenly a whole pile of others would get in.” He now lives in west London with his wife Joanne, from Tipperary, and they have an 11-month-old son, Alexander. There was a time when the couple were considering buying a home in Limerick or Tipp and moving back, but after seeing the mess Ireland got into, they decided to stay put.
He made an altogether different and perhaps even riskier gamble: giving up his job as a high-flying lawyer to concentrate on writing full-time.
“I quite enjoyed being a lawyer in the City, but I was always writing something on my own. And I had a bit of money put aside, so I thought I’d give it a go.”
Happily for Ryan, the critical response to his work has been largely positive, and he’s grateful that readers have embraced his serial detective enough to warrant a third book in the series.
“At the end of the day, I’m trying to be a professional writer, and I want to produce something that sells. It looks like this is a character that people like and would like to see more of, and I’m happy to give them what they want.”