Moscow in 1936 and a young woman is found tortured to death in a former Church. Captain Alexei Dimitrevich Korolev of the Criminal Investigation Division of the Moscow Militia is asked to investigate the case. Korolev, a veteran of both the Eastern Front in the Great War and the revolutionary civil war, is known as being a wily, skillful cop. And he needs to be: Moscow at the start of the great purge is a dangerous place, where a casual joke about the regime is sufficient for a ticket to the camps, and fear propels people to denounce each other in order protect themselves. Very quickly the NKVD become interested in the case and Korolev is compelled to keep them informed of progress. A second victim, a senior criminal figure, is then found similarly tortured. It’s apparent to Korolev that the case involves high level officials and that makes it just as dangerous to him as it is to those he’s pursuing.
I thoroughly enjoyed The Holy Thief, which is a very assured debut novel. It skillfully weaves together a police procedural with the understated elements of a spy thriller a la Le Carre. The characterization is well developed and Korolev is sympathetically portrayed with an interesting back story and enough depth to sustain a series. Where the book excels is in the contextual framing of politics and social relations of Stalin’s Russia – the cliques and factions, the collectivization, the role of the state, the division of power and resources, the social conditions and the everyday drudge of making ends meet – and in the strong sense of place and claustrophobic atmosphere. The plot is carefully constructed and well paced, with sufficient twists and turns and tension points. Once I’ve got hold of the second book in the series, The Bloody Meadow, it’ll move to the top of my reading pile.