Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Holy Thief

Anything would have been a let-down after JlC's A Delicate Truth.  But I'm glad I didn't let my irritation with the workmanlike prose of William Ryan's The Holy Thief get the better of me.  This book ended up being a reasonably compelling read, mostly for the detailed portrayal of life in Moscow, ca. 1936.

The story is not complex, although it requires a bit of focus to keep the names and relationships straight, esp. when switching back and forth between first names and patronymics, last names, and a whole lot of ranks - captain, colonel, general, etc.  There are some ghastly murders, a couple discussed from the perp's point of view.  Our Hero, Alexei Dimitriyevich Korolev, is an earnest comrade who likes being a cop (confusingly called the Militia) because he understands that justice must be served, but who also believes wholeheartedly in the glorious future of the Soviet state, and the sacrifices that must be made to get there.  In other words, he's a good Bolshevik.  Who gets caught up in a mystery involving the lucrative market for Russian Orthodox icons, and a variety of less-than-savory characters who will do anything to get their hands on the icons, or the money they represent.  Not surprisingly, Korolev gets a little too close to the truth, which involves politically sensitive individuals, is pulled off the case, but still manages to solve it all in a dramatic denouement that almost costs him his life but of course does not because I think there are more in this series.

Our Hero is your pretty standard good-guy-in-a-not-so-good-world, but unlike, say, Dr. Siri, he remains quite devoted to the Collective, and has not quite developed the gentle cynicism of that venerable gentleman, nor the barely-toeing-the-line approach of Bernie Gunther.  He's not, at the end of they day, that interesting.  But what is interesting, fascinating in fact, is the evocation of his world.  Moscow in 1936, just nineteen years after the Revolution, is not a garden spot.  Life there is hard, uncomfortable, and dangerous - you could be denounced for just muttering the wrong oath in front of the wrong person, and Korolev, who still prays privately every morning, has to watch himself.  There are a lot of bare bulbs in bare, cold, sparsely furnished rooms, and (very few) old cars, and threadbare clothing even for devoted servants of the State like Our Hero.  The Metropol Hotel, where foreigners stay and bigwigs hang out, stands in stark contrast to the de-consecrated churches, barren police stations, shared apartments, empty shops, endless lines and grime-and-gray, in which much of the action takes place.  One particularly well-done element is organized sport:  several scenes take place around a soccer stadium and at a match, and at the hippodrome.  Ryan has clearly spent a lot of time researching early Soviet-era sports, and the scenes set here provide a marvelous sense of detail and nuance.  Yes, it sucks to live in Stalinist Moscow, but if your team is playing, well, that takes priority for just a few hours.  The scene at the Moscow Hippodrome, while mostly a meeting between Korolev and another key character, effectively conveys the faded grandeur of that home to the sport of kings, combined with the desperation of small bettors with not much else to lose.  Ryan's small but recent list of books at the end suggests a careful research methodology, and it really pays off for the reader

The Holy Thief is a nice addition to the Totalitarians, and the more I think about it, the more I look forward to the next in this series.  (I've clearly gotten over my JlC-induced prose hangup.)  I haven't read anything set this early in the Soviet era, in fact I've read nothing but Martin Cruz Smith's much much later works.  It's worth visiting, from the comfort of the 21st c. anyway.

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