Maybe you are hanging out with Kolya and meeting Koralev is rather low down on your list of priorities? Or if you have no idea what I am talking about that means you are not reading William Ryan. Big mistake!
William Ryan has begun a thrilling series of novels set in Russia during the 1930s. Inspector Alexei Koralev, a detective in the Criminal Investigation Department, is based in Moscow; not to be confused with the NKVD or the Chekists. In difficult circumstances he solves a devious and complicated plot aimed at exporting precious religious items from Russia; to prevent this (or not, as the case maybe) several horrific murders have taken place – Koralev, at great risk to himself, and with a determined and practical mind sets out to solve the mystery surrounding these events, in The Holy Thief he gets closer and closer to the truth…but suddenly is taken off the case, not that this stops him. Assistance, of a kind, comes from Kolya, Chief Authority of Moscow Thieves – a clandestine and subtly attractive underground network, so called The Thieves, of ex-convicts covered in telling tattoos that operate in Stalin’s Moscow, the tattoos tell their own story and the more you have…
In the second book of the series, Koralev has to go to Odessa where a beautiful and accomplished young woman has been murdered. By this time, Koralev has established his credentials as a discreet and honest Militiaman, not the norm evidently! In The Bloody Meadow, the dead woman is Maria Lenskaya, production assistant on the film of this title but with connections in the higher echelons of political life, and a string of other lovers with vested interests that lie anywhere but in solving the mystery. Koralev is the man to sort out this mess, with help from an unexpected quarter…
Be warned – The Darkening Field is just the same book for an American audience, The Bloody Meadow was deemed to be a too unpleasant a title, Meadow too fey, and Bloody too well, bloody! Wimps!
Why these books are so fascinating is because Mr William Ryan knows his background, and little by little we get a picture of what it must have been like living through the early (between the wars) Stalinist era. With hindsight we can see where this all is going, but in the books there are only the vaguest hints of the catastrophe that befell the people of Russia as gradually the State took control. The 1930s are only the beginning of the 5-year-plan: collectivization has begun in earnest, but most of the country are unaware of the devasting effect on the grain producing areas, Ukraine among them – the export of grain from Odessa is mentioned in passing and not in a complimentary manner, but the effect that it has on the population (we now know that millions starved to death) is not expounded – because AT THE TIME very, very few people knew the truth. The same goes for an area that Koralev calls The Zone, we know this area as The Gulag, and we get from Koralev the nagging anxiety, a constant undercurrent, that if he fails in his endeavours not only will he disappear into The Zone, but it will affect his estranged wife and young son, Yuri. In fact, at the very end of the second book he finds out just how much his superior, Rodinov, knows about his background and his small family and it is not a piece of information that fills him with any joy.
Not only are these thrilling detective novels, but also they are filled with fascinating insights into life in Moscow and in Odessa. There is a lovely moment when Koralev walks down the famous steps of Odessa harbour and thinks about the film Battleship Potemkin, made in 1925, these and similar moments are precious and delightful.
Mr Ryan has assured me that The Twelfth Department, the tird book in this series, comes out in May 2013 so you have got plenty of time to catch up – what are you waiting for?