THE HOLY THIEF. By William Ryan.

by John Boland

William Ryan is an Irish writer, though you’d never guess it from his outstanding debut novel, a thriller that’s set in mid-1930s Moscow at the onset of Stalin’s Great Terror.

Formerly a barrister in London, where he still lives, Ryan took a Masters in creative writing five years ago at St Andrew’s University under the guidance of AL Kennedy, Don Patterson and John Burnside, and The Holy Thief is the first book in a planned series featuring  42-year-old detective Alexei Korolev.

Alhough a loyal servant of the state and a hardened veteran both of World War One and of his current profession, Korolev retains the vestiges of prohibited religious feelings and has misgivings about the motivations and methods of his superiors, even if he keeps these to himself, musing at one point that “if he didn’t believe the leadership were working for the People’s future – well, where would he be? What hell would he find himself in then if it all turned out to be a blood-soaked lie?”

Gruff but not cruel and frequently bemused, he’s an intriguing and attractive hero – “a simple man,” as he considers himself, whose “job was to catch killers and assist in the administration of justice” – and we’re absorbed in his actions, thoughts and feelings as he tries to solve a series of brutal killings.

Shadowy and dangerous forces hinder his investigation. Mistrustful of his own colleagues, he also has to cope with an organisation of self-styled Thieves, who are enemies of the state and have their own reasons for wanting the case to be solved – reasons that have all to do with a missing religious icon revered by the Thieves and worth an illegal fortune to whoever can get their hands on it.

If this sounds like Dan Brown territory, three qualities ensure that it’s not. First, the plot makes satisfyingly logical sense, with no pseudo-mystical mumbo jumbo to derail it. Second, the various characters are so skilfully drawn that each of them has his own vivid personality, not least the famous journalist and playwright Isaak Babel, who in  life was tortured and shot by Stalin’s goons in 1940. And third, Ryan can really write – an elegant, evocative English that savours each scene while propelling the action unerringly onwards.

There are bravura set-pieces – a night at the races, a football match between Spartak and the Army – and while I can’t vouch for the accuracy of Ryan’s period details, there’s an arresting sense of time and place which lends the book a real sense of immediacy.

And there are many pleasurably dry political and social observations, too. “Why was it,” Korolev wondered, “that if you put a policeman in front of a Muscovite these days they’d use the opportunity to denounce half the people they knew?” And Babel sardonically remarks of the Great Purge that “suspicion isn’t even necessary these days to have a man shot because there’s a quota to be filled – and anyone will do.”

In brief, there’s much to admire and absorb in this excellent and exciting first novel.

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