Sunday, December 22, 2013


My colleague Ruby has turned me on to two great historical mystery series -- both set in 1930s Europe. One is, sadly, by an author who decided to call it quits after four books -- Rebecca Pawel. (I have mixed feelings about this, on the one hand there isn't any more to read; on the other, there's my compulsive need to keep reading even when an author has completely run out of interesting ideas.) The other is also named Rebecca, Rebecca Cantrell.

So, when I was not wanting to read whatever it was I had in hand, I went to Ruby and asked for another recommendation. She suggested William Ryan's Alexei Dmitriyevich Korolev, police captain in the Moscow Militia (civil police force) in the years that Joseph Stalin consolidated his power. The Holy Thief is the first installment.

Korolev is called to a crime scene where the tortured and mutilated body of a young woman has been found in a deconsecrated church. He soon discovers that the woman was a American nun and she was in Russia trying to smuggle religious icons out of the country. This knowledge brings the case to the attention of the state security agency, the NKVD (People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs). It's 1936, and Stalin's purges intensify; one of Korolev's favorite colleagues has disappeared -- most likely into The Zone -- due to an overheard joke about Chekists. Korolev must tread carefully lest he suffer the same fate, not least because he hides a Bible in the floorboards of his apartment.

The mystery here isn't the best -- there aren't any surprises about who killed the girl (and others) and why. The precious religious icon that everyone is seeking is never recovered (shades of this), and I'm not sure who the eponymous thief is. But the atmosphere (or as we say in the readers advisory biz, the setting) is terrific. A city where everyone avoids eye contact, yet inside Korolev's raucous apartment building are lively parties and treasonous talk. A violent football (soccer) match where the violence extends into the stands and onto the subway is so vivid that this listener was almost convinced she was seated among the stinking participants.  A posse of street children whose parents are most likely in The Zone (or dead) and who will do anything to avoid an orphanage become Korolev's Baker Street Irregulars. The bonechilling cold, the dripping walls and dank terror of Lubyanka prison, the characters who are not what they appear. It's fascinating, well-researched, and leaves you wanting more.

Once Ruby made her recommendation, the second thing I did (after reading about it in our catalog) was see if there was an audio version. I guess the answer is obvious, but when I discovered that Simon Vance was the reader, I decided to wait for an Interlibrary Loan. Now I know and recognize that Vance is a master of his craft, but he and I haven't really clicked yet. I'm not gaga about him (as I am with Dion Graham or Alan Cumming) and I think that's because we haven't met over the right book. I totally get what makes him great -- underlying all his narrations is an honest emotional connection with the story and its characters which is beautifully manifested in his reading. I keep searching for that book that will make me gaga.

The Holy Thief comes very close. Except for an odd pronunciation of Korolev (Vance goes with Kor-oh-LYOFF, whereas I eye-read Ko-ROE-lev), Vance is excellent. He reads the Russian names with authority and confidence, but thankfully doesn't go with the fake Russian accents. Snobbishly, I agree with his choice to give the cast of characters class and education variations of the English accent. The novel's few Americans sound appropriate. Vance's real talent is his storytelling, which he demonstrates in an easy reading pace and his low, pleasant voice. When the tension rises, Vance knows how to vary his delivery to reflect Korolev's situation and when true terror is in the offing it is clear in his voice. And there is true terror in this story.

There are several sections of the novel from the torturer/murderer's perspective (while at work) and Vance's delivery changes subtlely from the calm, business-like authority with which he reads Korolev's story to a softly sinister and confiding manner (all the more horrifying considering what the character is describing).

The brief intro/outro music is a squib of orchestral music that has a nice suspenseful build to it. It doesn't sound particularly Russian (whatever that is), but it set the stage in just 15 short seconds.

And that might constitute the one serious drawback about this book -- the violence visited upon the victims is meticulously described and Korolev himself takes more than one vicious beating. Almost too vivid for listening, actually; I might continue on by reading.

[Ryan's website is a fount of information about the period and has many, many photographs. The one above is Red Square during the 1930s. I believe the Falcon-ish icon that everyone is seeking is similar to this one, which is Our Lady of Vladimir, living in the Tretyakov State Gallery and retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Holy Thief (The Investigations of Captain Korolev, Book 1) by William Ryan
Narrated by Simon Vance
Macmillan Audio,  2010. 10:08

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