Wednesday, 24 April 2013

"The Holy Thief", William Ryan

Historical crime fiction provides us with a useful lens with which to both interpret the past and be entertained with a context that we can readily flesh out more completely by reading around the period in question.

William Ryan's "The Holy Thief", set amidst the increasing paranoia of mid 1930s Stalinist USSR, gives us a simultaneously gruesome and humorous work reminiscent in parts of Cruz Smith's "Gorky Park". Graphic brutality and banal poverty of life is juxtaposed with the pleasing absurdity of Soviet hyper-ambition. Characters who grub around for food and clothing rations can talk of how technological development will lead to not just skyscrapers, but wider roads, because in future buildings will be on movable rails. Herein Ryan's book starts to transcend the police procedural, and becomes valid socio-historical comment. In Soviet Russia anything is possible, which links with some contemporary Western commentary, such as the Webb's work on Soviet Communism or George Bernard Shaw's rapportage.

Amidst this Ryan's core character, ex-soldier, ex-footballer, Christian, and all round good chap Alexei Dmitriyevich Korolev unpicks a series of murders connected with an icon smuggling racket. His interaction with the rest of Soviet society and the smothering bureaucracy keep pace in the novel, as we steadily unpick the threads of what is involved, and why the body count around Moscow keeps rising.

Like a lot however, the early game of The Holy Thief is probably better. By the end there's a drift away from a tight narrative focus, and you're left decreasingly engaged with what the actual ins and outs of the crime are. Perhaps however this in itself is a commentary on Stalin's Soviet Union. Much as there's a backdrop of Yagoda's fall and the rise of Yezhov (himself short lived) what is and is not a crime, and who is and is not a criminal becomes a blurry concept. 

As said before, in Soviet Russia anything is possible.

No comments:

Post a Comment