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October 31, 2013 / John Sheridan

Capt. Alexei Korolev

Amazon USA William Ryan Page
Amazon UK William Ryan Page

Book 1 – The Holy Thief

It wasn’t easy for the young lad, thought Korolev. Being a good Communist these days was like following an arbitrary God who required you to believe that white was white one day and black the next.

Book 2 – The Bloody Meadow aka The Darkening Field


He found himself hoping that a day would come when the leadership would point out to these arrogant protectors of the State that the People they were meant to be protecting were the same people they spent their time harassing and intimidating. (P. 71)

He knew that if he listened hard enough he’d hear voices from the cabinet, begging him to rescue the poor unfortunates imrisoned there and bury them, deep beneath the ground, the way a human being should be buried, in the shadow of an Orthodox cross to mark their passing. (P.112)

Book 3 – The Twelfth Department

His visit to the institute had him asking questions he generally tried to avoid. What kind of revolution had it been now that the State had ended up making a science out of breaking its citizens down and building them up again? And for what? So that they could all think the same, feel the same, chant the same name at the same time – Stalin’s name, no doubt. How had it happened? He’d thought the Revolution had been intended to give the people freedom from oppression, not build establishments like the institute. Sometimes it was hard to believe that there was any good left in Soviet power, and that was the truth of it.

Straight from the opening prologue you can appreciate that the quality of the writing herein is something from another realm. The author had offered review copies maybe a year or two back which I ultimately declined because if you subsist like me on a diet primarily of American detectives by the names of Elvis and Harry (ok granted there is the occasional sojourn to Norway but he’s still named Harry!) then you may have concerns about historical novels set in the Stalinist era of the Soviet Union. Well maybe I’ve grown as a reader in the last couple of years but I was probably doing Mr. Ryan a disservice because he presents us with a surprisingly engaging central character in Capt. Alexei Korolev with a turn of wit that was both pleasing and unexpected. Korolev is a detective with the Moscow Militia which is the civilian police investigation unit as opposed to a branch of the state security apparatus known as NKVD (or colloquially as Chekists) and years later to become better known as the KGB.

The author effortlessly depicts both the environment and the era with references to requisitioned apartments and the all-pervasive sense of caution and inhibition engendered by the constant spectre of being reported on leading to possible investigation and arrest in the dark of night for subsequent transfer to Siberia. I was a bit slower than normal getting through this one but this was primarily due to me pausing to savour what I had just read.

Throughout the series, one is aware of the overbearing presence of the NKVD who emphasise the importance of trivial political matters over a murder investigation which merely serves to enhance our admiration for Korolev as he balances the requirements of his investigations without either meekly succumbing to subservience or abandoning particular avenues of investigation entirely.

As a historical series it certainly introduced me to a number of movements and incidents (e.g. The Stakhanovite Movement and the Stalinist Five Year Plans) that enhanced my understanding of the era so it was educational as well. Although Korolev is a Stalin supporter as evidenced by his enthusiastic response to an appearance by the Soviet Party Chairman, some remnants of his Orthodox beliefs remain with his morning prayer ritual as well as secreting his Bible away allied to his avoidance of doors in the former church that had been reserved to clergy. These tendencies must remain a closely guarded secret s however in a climate of distrust and fear fostered by the denunciation of colleagues by those either seeking revenge or advancement along with his reservations about the nature of the evolving Soviet society and those charged with “protecting” it from both internal and external saboteurs. In book two of the series, Korolev finds himself sought out by the upper echelons of the NKVD for an investigation in the Ukraine which in a politically charged environment as it existed at the time being remembered isn’t always the most comfortable of existences while #3 finds Korolev in unfortunate circumstances – caught between two rival NKVD factions which would lead most men to simply acquiesce and follow the path of least resistance to reach an acceptable conclusion regardless of the evidence even if this means compromising their own principles particularly when their own family are placed in jeopardy. Ironically across the series members of the Moscow Thieves become more trusted than some of those that he works for and with, even though nominally at least they are foes. My ratings for the three books were 10, 8 and 9 respectively in series order so it’s fair to say that I loved them and I’ve got a new series to follow in the future and definitely a series for you if you favour historical settings (or even if you don’t).

Synopses of the various books from the author’s website are reproduced below.

No payment or incentive was received or promised in relation to this review. Books were sourced from local libraries.

The Holy Thief: Synopsis
Moscow, 1936 and Stalin’s Great Terror is beginning. In a deconsecrated Church, a young woman is found dead, her mutilated body displayed on the altar for all to see.

Captain Alexei Korolev of the Criminal Investigation Division of the Moscow Militia, is asked to investigate. But when he discovers that the victim is an American citizen, the NKVD – the most feared organisation in Russia – becomes involved.

As more bodies are discovered and the pressure from above builds, Korolev begins to question who he can trust; and who, in this Russia where fear, uncertainty and hunger prevails, are the real criminals. Soon, Korolev will find not only his moral and political ideals threatened, but also his life . . .

The Bloody Meadow: Synopsis
Following his investigations in The Holy Thief, which implicated those at the very top of authority in Soviet Russia, Captain Alexei Korolev finds himself decorated and hailed as an example to all Soviet workers. But Korolev is uneasy– his new-found knowledge is dangerous, and if some of his actions during the case come to light, he will face deportation to the frozen camps of the far north.

But when the knock on the door comes, in the dead of night, it is not Siberia Korolev is destined for. Instead, Colonel Rodinov of the NKVD asks the detective to look into the suspected suicide of a young woman: Maria Lenskaya, a model citizen. Korolev is unnerved to learn that Lenskaya was in a relationship with Ezhov, the feared Commissar for State Security and that Ezhov himself wants to matter looked into.

And when the detective arrives on the set for Bloody Meadow, in the bleak, famine-scarred Ukraine, he soon discovers that there is more to Lenskaya’s death than meets the eye . . .

The Twelfth Department: Synopsis
Moscow, 1937. Captain Korolev, a police investigator, is enjoying a long-overdue visit from his young son Yuri when an eminent scientist is shot dead within sight of the Kremlin and Korolev is ordered to find the killer.

It soon emerges that the victim, a man who it appears would stop at nothing to fulfil his ambitions, was engaged in research of great interest to those at the very top ranks of Soviet power. When another scientist is brutally murdered, and evidence of the professors’ dark experiments is hastily removed, Korolev begins to realise that, along with having a difficult case to solve, he’s caught in a dangerous battle between two warring factions of the NKVD. And then his son Yuri goes missing . . .

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