The Holy Thief is the third of the three books that I bought at Bookmark when I was in Spalding. I left this one until last because my son, who specialised in twentieth century Eastern European history at university, put me off it slightly by saying that novelists who write about Stalinist Russia never quite get the historical backdrop right. However, having begun this novel towards the end of last week, I found that I couldn’t put it down and finished it within a couple of days.
William Ryan has obviously researched the Stalinist period very well. He offers a select bibliography at the end of the novel, among which are the works of Orlando Figes, whose social history The Whisperers also made a great impression on me when I read it. He doesn’t obtrude his knowledge of the period (a skill that I always think is the hallmark of a distinguished writer), but in my view – and of course neither Ryan nor I really knows! – he has captured perfectly the seediness, uncertainty and underlying paranoia that permeated the whole of life when Stalin was the Russian leader. Very skilfully, over the course of the novel, he also manages to convey the futility of many of the brutal and savage actions carried out in the name of the state by the Stalinist regime. Lives are snatched or broken, but to what effect? It is as if the waters close over the people and events that have been targeted and the whole monstrous machine just creaks on as it did before, a savage animal against which the only defence is to remain in the shadows.
Captain Alexei Korolev, the hero of this novel, is an interesting take on the protagonist of the Russian crime thriller. He owes something to Le Carré’s George Smiley, but of course he belongs to an earlier part of the twentieth century and he is much more establishment than Smiley: he is a policeman, not a spy. Smiley already knows that ideologies are tawdry, slippery things and destroy the soul and that being a devotee of the truth – if the truth can be defined – is dangerous; Korolev, who has been a successful CID officer, has to discover this inch by inch, the hard way, by becoming the victim himself. In the process, he comes face to face with the terrifying yet essentially faceless members of the organised criminals who control Moscow’s criminal underworld.
If I have any criticism to make of this novel, it is that in places it is almost not dark enough. Ryan certainly doesn’t go in for gratuitous violence or sensationalism, which I applaud, but sometimes his writing seems to convey a sense of optimism that is not warranted by the period and events of which he writes. In Figes’ The Whisperers, there are no good people left: all those he describes know that they cannot rely on friends, family members, even sons or daughters, not to betray them; whereas in The Holy Thief morality, generosity and even taking the risk of offering casual kindness to strangers still prevail amongst people principled enough and brave enough not to allow their standards to drop. But that is where fiction diverges from reality: a novel is not a meaningless collection of events: it has to carry some message to the reader. Stalin’s Terror, on the other hand, had no proper meaning, no message: it simply channelled the crazed paranoia of one very powerful man into the brutal gratification of his sadistic henchmen.
This is undoubtedly a potent read and one that I enjoyed very much!