The premise of The Holy Thief promises much but is somewhat stifled by the political dramas of Stalinís Great Terror and the atmosphere of distrust that pervades a society on the verge of war. When Alexei Korolov of the Moscow Militiaís Criminal Investigation Unit is assigned the case of the torture/murder of an unidentified young woman, he has no idea of the complications that lie ahead. With his new assistant, Semionov, Alexei is confronted with a paucity of evidence; nevertheless, he responds to necessity with his usual attention to detail, conscious of the delicacy required of a member of the Militia when treading the territory usually reserved for the NKVD. Alexei is somewhat alarmed that he has been given a case with political implications.
More chilling is the atmosphere in Moscow as suspicions cause more than one important figure to topple, the changing cast of superiors casting a pall on Korolovís coworkers, the careless word a cause for concern, demotion, even imprisonment. Religion is no longer necessary, God a relic of the past, Stalinís new world order rigorously applied and forged in fear. An honest man and a veteran of the Revolution, Korolov has no intention of crossing any lines or interfering with procedure, but the investigation takes him into dangerous places: the world of thieves and gangsters, where information can be bought but never coerced.
Since the discovery of the body of the mutilated young woman at the beginning of the investigation, other bodies have surfaced, victims of careful, sustained torture - but for what reason? Strange, often forbidden alliances leave Korolov with much to consider, including a nagging suspicion that he is being set up for a fall. While Alexei shows proper respect for his superiors and his mission, everyone is afraid of the damp, dark rooms of prisons where interrogations are brutal and extensive, where a man can be lost forever or killed in a moment of frustration.
Of similar character to Tom Rob Smithís Child 44, Ryan carefully replicates historical detail but isnít as adept at portraying the internal conflicts of his protagonist: ďThe time for choosing between duty and life had come.Ē Throughout, the sense of suspicion and distrust permeates every encounter, the likelihood of Korolovís success diminishing as he learns the identity of the monster behind the torture/murders and the reason for the deaths. Moscow in 1936 is a frightening place, humanity subsumed by the demands of the state and violence condoned for the good of all. The question is, who is monitoring those who make the rules?