Jack's Blog: William Ryan Review

Wednesday Apr 18 2012
by Jack

The twenty-year period between 1919 and 1939 was in Europe an absolutely horrific bloody era. It featured a swinging economic depression and unemployment, revolutions, the rise of the dictators (headed by Hitler, Stalin, and Franco), vicious pogroms against minority groups, and the introduction of terror as a general means of governing. Not surprisingly, all the violence and evil makes a perfect setting for crime fiction, and in recent years a number of authors, headed by Philip Kerr and Alan Furst, have discovered this period and locale as background for their writing. A recent authorial entrant into this sweepstakes is the Englishman William Ryan, who has invented a policeman – Captain Alexei Korolov of the Criminal Investigation Division of the Moscow Militia – and placed him in Stalin’s Russia in the mid-1930s, just after the Ukrainian holocaust and at the beginning of the political purges of the latter part of the decade. The fact that Korolov is a militiaman is important, for it means he is a cop concerned with crime rather than an agent concerned with political activity. This distinction between criminal investigation and political repression is one that has been made by a number of writers, perhaps nowhere better than by the Canadian J. Robert Janes in his series set in occupied Paris during the war.  (In Janes’ books, a Gestapo officer and a Surete cop team up to solve crimes against the background of German occupation.)  Ryan has done his research, and he manages to convey a real sense of the atmosphere of the period of Stalin’s purges, when every Soviet citizen had to look constantly over his or her shoulder and worry about the knock on the door which meant the Gulag -- or worse – and which often had no rhyme or reason.  In the first book of the series, Holy Thief, Ryan has also found and made use of another fascinating piece of Russian lore, the use of tattooing by criminals for identification and recognition. Apparently the Russian criminal element has long employed tattoos as a way of marking their criminal progress, so that one experienced in the business could “read” a criminal’s body and work out his/her criminal record and incarceration history. In any event, Korolov comes to the attention of the NKIVD, which makes use of his criminal investigative talents and has no interest in having him slide over to the political side. In the second book, The Darkening Field, the NKVD sends him to the Ukraine to the site of the shooting of a Russian film. The plot is very complex, but Korolov again stays away from the political and is assisted by a young female Ukrainian militia sergeant named Slivka, who at the close of the novel is permanently assigned to him. The two will obviously become a team in further novels which the author is undoubtedly planning. This series is already one of the best reads I have enjoyed over the past couple of years, and I recommend it very highly.

(cross posted at http://jmbumsted.blogspot.ca/)

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