The Holy Thief by William Ryan both succeeds and fails at the same time. Set in 1936 Moscow, the novel starts out with a horrible and gruesome murder of a woman in a church. A detective for the Moscow CID (Criminal Investigative Division), Alexei Dmitriyevich Korolev is put on the case to solve. Complicating matters, the woman turns out to be American which ultimately leads to the search for a religious relic. It’s sad to think that a novel can fail on story, and this one does so spectacularly.
First of all, William Ryan does a great job in setting the scene. His depiction of 1936 Moscow is excellent, even if it might be slightly fictionalized. That’s okay because I felt the stark and repressive nature of the country’s communism. Every word and inflection is scrutinized and the devotion to the government the citizens have is astounding. It was very well written and realized.
Then we have the mystery, and this is where things go terribly wrong. It wasn’t interesting. Moreover it was terribly familiar as if I had read dozens of mysteries like this before. In fact, there were so many police/mystery cliches my eyes rolled on reflex. I was terribly bored and couldn’t wait to finish the book so I could put it down, not caring in the slightest the who, what and why of the story’s mystery.
The book would have been far better if he had completely nixed the mystery altogether and wrote a wonderful story about 1936 Moscow, Russia. I feel like he wanted to write a Dan Brown inspired work, when he should have modeled his book after Jonathan Franzen. Life and relationships during that time would have been far more interesting and poignant.