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Sunday, 14 July 2013

William Ryan

Three Novels by William Ryan

Three excellent novels by William Ryan, well-researched and intricately plotted,  are set in 1930s Stalinist Russia and introduce Captain Alexei Korolev of the Criminal Investigation Department of the Moscow Militia, the regular police, depicting life when Stalin's Great Terror, already in train, is gathering pace. It was a time when ideologies of the left and the right held sway in Europe and supporters of those ideologies believed that, once the correct formula had been found and applied, a happy outcome for all would result except where thwarted by so-called Enemies of the People (ie. of the State), variously defined according to the ideology concerned. With modern hindsight, these ideologies and the dreadful excesses which resulted were clearly deeply evil, but those were different times and the outlook of many people was moulded by those beliefs.

One such is Korolev, a former soldier in the Russian Army who fought against the Germans in World War I, the Czarist forces in Russia's own civil war, and then the invading Poles. He is fundamentally a thoroughly decent man, straightforward and steadfast, who sees himself as a loyal Soviet citizen. He believes that the sufferings of the present will bring about a better future so long as the advances are not undone by the machinations of traitors, spies and saboteurs abroad and at home. But he is also aware that one false step, one word spoken, even in jest, out of turn, could result in disaster for him, his family, his colleagues and his friends. Anyone, no matter how eminent, even the feared Yagoda, General Kommissar of State Security, can be denounced for little or even no reason and then disappear into the Lubianka or the gulags as had also happened to a colleague of Korolev's who had made an unwise joke about the NKVD (the department responsible for state security). This atmosphere of perpetual fear and paranoia forms the overarching theme of all three novels manifested in the sinister power of the NKVD which is a continuing presence in all three novels as is the criminality and corruption of the state authorities.

Korolev is divorced and his ex-wife Zhenia and his son Yuri live some distance from Moscow. Given the appalling housing conditions in Moscow, Korolev is lucky to have a room in a flat occupied by the widow Valentina Koltsova and her daughter Natasha. Korolev's developing feelings for Valentina are one of the many strands in these novels as is his attachment to Russian Orthodox Christianity; he still has his mother's Bible which would be enough if discovered to render him liable to denunciation and deportation to the gulags.

Another theme is Korolev's strange relationship with Count Kolya of the Moscow Thieves, brought about by his friend and neighbour, the (real-life) Isaac Babel. The Thieves were a criminal organisation, which really existed (and still do today, according to on-line sources, in the shape of the Russian Mafia). They controlled the Russian underworld. They see themselves as being in perpetual opposition to any government or law enforcement agency with their own strict rules, ruthlessly enforced. Kolya supplies Korolev with information he would not have been able to gain otherwise. Similarly, Korolev is aided by his acquaintanceship with a gang of street children, orphans (often the children of those so-called Enemies of the People who had disappeared into the gulags) abandoned by the State to fend for themselves on the streets of Moscow

‘The Holy Thief’
Published by Pan Macmillan, 2012.  
 ISBN: 978-0-330-50840-7 

In The Holy Thief Korolev investigates the torture and murder of a young woman whose body has been found on the altar of a disused church. But there is clearly more to her death than a brutal killing: her clothes and teeth indicate that she was not from the Soviet Union. Colonel Grigorin of the NKVD is taking an interest in the murder; he informs Korolev that she was of Russian origin, had emigrated to the US as a child, had become a nun and had perhaps returned to the Soviet Union to buy religious icons. He suggests that, Jack Schwartz, an American living in Moscow, might have information. Then there is another murder, this time of a Thief whose body, identified by his tattoos, is found on a Moscow football pitch. One of the Thief's tattoos is a copy of the Kazanskaya, the holy Icon of Kazan, sacred to many Russians including the Thieves, depicting Mary and the Baby Jesus. Kolya tells Korolev that the murdered woman had been looking for the original icon, stolen many years before. Moreover, the killing of priests and nuns is forbidden by the rules of the Thieves. Korolev, with additional information provided by the gang of street children he has befriended, in particular, their leader, Kim Goldstein, and assisted by his colleagues, Semionov and Larinin, has to follow up all these leads in an exciting and satisfying tale of danger, deceit and violence.

‘The Bloody Meadow’
Published by Macmillan, 2011. 
ISBNs: (hb) 978-0-230-74271-1;
 (Trade pb) 978-0-230-75331- 0

The Bloody Meadow takes place in and near the Black Sea port of Odessa in the Ukraine, now an independent state but then part of the Soviet Union, and involves the apparent suicide of Maria Lenskaya, a production assistant on a film being made near Odessa called The Bloody Meadow. Korolev is sent by Colonel Rodinov of the NKVD to investigate Lenskaya's death; it appears that she was the mistress of Nikolai Ezhov, Yagoda's successor as head of the NKVD and equally fearsome, but this must be kept secret, the official reason being that Korolev is visiting his friend Babel who is scriptwriter for the film. On arrival in the Ukraine, Korolev is assigned an assistant, Nadezhda Slivka of the Odessa CID. However, the local NKVD chief, Major Mushkin, and his steely mother Elizaveta Mushkina, a comrade of Stalin's from before the Revolution, are overtly hostile. Suspicion at first falls on the elderly caretaker Efrim Andrychuk who discovered Maria's body but in Odessa Korolev encounters Count Kolya who tells him of rumours that guns are being smuggled from Nazi Germany via Odessa to anti-Soviet elements in the Ukraine and also that in return highly sensitive information is being smuggled out of the Soviet Union by a young woman. Kolya is concerned that the rumours could lead the NKVD to clamp down on all criminal activities including those of the Thieves. Could the informant be Lenskaya, for all her apparently spotless reputation as a model Soviet citizen? She had been brought up in an orphanage but if her parents turn out to have been Enemies of the People, this would be highly damaging to Ezhov. Or are her other lovers – the journalist Lomatkin, the film director Savchenko, and the bureaucrat Belakovsky – involved? The story is full of action leading to a bloody shoot-out in the tunnels under Odessa and a most unexpected denouement.

‘The Twelfth Department’
Published by Macmillan 2013. 
ISBN: 978-0-230-74275-8

In The Twelfth Department Korolev has returned to Moscow. His son Yuri is staying with him but seems troubled. Apparently Zhenia's flat has been searched by the NKVD and Korolev's efforts to contact her are unavailing. And Korolev and Slivka (now transferred to Moscow) have a murder to investigate: the eminent scientist Boris Azarov has been shot in his flat in Leadership House, an elite apartment block for Soviet VIPs. Azarov, head of the prestigious Azarov Institute where secret scientific psychological research is carried out, was almost universally disliked, particularly by his deputy, Arkady Shtange. But almost at once Korolev and Slivka are pulled off the case by Colonel Zaitov of the NKVD. Korolev is glad to be rid of a case with probable dangerous political elements and, having refused a request from Count Kolya to look into the Institute's activities, takes himself and Yuri off to his friend Babel's dacha (country cottage)for a few days, where they encounter Kim Goldstein, now no longer in a street gang but in a local  orphanage. Then two NKVD operatives arrive, sent by Zaitov, to bring Korolev and Yuri back to Moscow. But Yuri has disappeared and cannot be found either in the country or in Moscow. And there has been another murder, this time of Shtange, which Korolev and Slivka must solve while also desperately seeking Yuri.

These three novels are the first of a series set in the pre-World War II Soviet Union. There is plenty of scope for more which will be eagerly awaited.
Reviewer: Radmila May

William Ryan  is an Irish writer living in London. He was educated at Trinity College, Dublin and the University of St Andrews and worked as a lawyer before taking up writing full-time. His first novel, THE HOLY THIEF, was shortlisted for the Theakstons Crime Novel of the Year, The Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award, The CWA John Creasy New Blood Dagger and a Barry Award. His second novel, THE BLOODY MEADOW, was shortlisted for the Ireland AM Irish Crime Novel of the Year. William  lives in London with his wife and son.

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