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"The time for choosing between duty and life had come."

  • Sep 1, 2010
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Ryan's novel is set in Moscow 1936, where Captain Alexei Korolev, a veteran of the Revolution and member of the Moscow Militia's Criminal Investigation Unit is assigned the case of a murdered and mutilated young woman. Once the body is identified, the case takes on a life of its own, every aspect fraught with political implications as Korolev and his new assistant, Semionov, are led from one mutilated body to another. But the real tension in this novel comes from the strained atmosphere of Stalin's Great Terror, where anyone with information- or suspicions- is duty bound to report to superiors or face the consequences. It is impossible for Korolev to gauge the trustworthiness of his comrades, let alone his superiors, especially when the connections between the murders lead him into the murky underground of thieves and gangsters.

Alliances of any kind are always subject to investigation, a fact Korolev must carefully weigh when sharing information, any mistake a threat to his career as the tight circle of the investigation is tainted by suspicious activities of others. Religion is no longer necessary in a society where God does not exist, all consumed by Stalin's new world order as war looms on the horizon. Purges are common and brutal, Korolev painfully aware of the implications of one misstep, one careless statement. Treading this tightrope is no easy feat. The closer Korolev gets to solving the murders, the more likely is the possibility of corruption; this veteran of the Revolution realizes that there is no such thing as job security.

While Ryan's deeply chilling tale is reminiscent of Tom Rob Smith's Child 44, Holy Thief doesn't quite deliver the emotional punch of that novel, although Ryan certainly recreates the anxiety that infects the investigation in 1936 Moscow, particularly interactions with the notorious NKVD. Ryan's protagonist is caught between his conscience and his position, the needs of the state trumping the most basic of human instincts, a moral, thoughtful man caught in the web of historical events beyond his control. Other than Korolev and Semionov, the characters exist in a frozen terrain, each decision a risk, action provoking reaction, political expedience and survival Stalin's bitter legacy. Luan Gaines/2010.

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review by . August 06, 2010
Recently we've seen a slew of books based in Stalin era Russia, and involving murders and mysteries. "Child 44" immediately comes to mind, among others. This book also takes place in Russia, in 1936, right before Stalin initiated the great party purges, and millions disappeared forever.     The protagonist of this story is a detective Captain in the Militia, whose job it is to investigate and solve crimes. The Militia, as was the Cheka, was not loved by the average citizen, because …
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Luan Gaines ()
Ranked #109
An artist/writer, I have traveled the world, walked on the moon and learned the complicated language of humanity, the enormity of the universe... all through the written word. My first passport was a … more
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Starred Review. Set in 1936, Ryan's impressive debut introduces Capt. Alexei Korolev of the Moscow Militia's Criminal Investigation Division, who looks into the murder of a young woman found butchered in a church. Signs of torture suggest the killer may have been trying to get information out of the victim. Colonel Gregorin, an NKVD officer who takes an interest in the case, believes the crime has "a political element." With Gregorin's help, the captain identifies the woman as an American nun, who may have been involved with smuggling valuables out of the Soviet Union for sale abroad. After a second similar murder, Korolev enlists the help of a motley assortment of allies, including a contingent of would-be Baker Street Irregulars and acclaimed writer Isaac Babel. Ryan, who merits comparison to Tom Rob Smith, makes palpable the perpetual state of fear of being reported as disloyal, besides dramatizing the difficulty of being an honest cop in a repressive police state. Readers will hope Korolev has a long career ahead of him. 125,000 first printing; author tour.
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ISBN-10: 0312586450
ISBN-13: 978-0312586454
Author: William Ryan
Publisher: Minotaur Books

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