Debut novelist Ryan delivers a gritty mystery set in Stalinist 1936 Moscow.
In this Soviet-styled twist on the police procedural, Captain Alexei Korolev of the Criminal Investigation Division in Moscow examines the gruesome torture and murder of a woman whose mutilated corpse was left on the altar of a former church. It turns out that the victim was a Soviet woman who had emigrated to the United States as a child—and she was also a nun. Soon after, a thief is found tortured and killed in a similar manner, and Korolev is drawn into a mystery involving Moscow thieves, government officials and a secret and extremely valuable religious icon. Although this novel is set in an earlier era, its Soviet setting and tone of paranoia may remind some readers of Martin Cruz Smith’s 1981 mystery thriller Gorky Park. Ryan does a fine job conveying the grim, oppressive atmosphere of everyday life in a totalitarian state. His attention to period detail is notable, particularly the culturally specific touches, as when Korolev admiringly reads a passage from the novel A Hero of Our Time by Russian author Mikhail Lermontov, or when one character is described as having a “smile as firm and uncompromising as a Pravda editorial.” Even General Secretary Stalin makes a brief, nonspeaking cameo. Ryan’s characterization of Korolev—a loyal apparatchik who hides a stubborn streak of individualism, as well as a Bible under his floorboards—is particularly well-handled, and other minor characters, such as the overworked government doctor Zinaida Chestnova, are also effectively sketched. But for all the effort and research that clearly went into the novel’s setting and characters, the pacing is at times a bit slow, and the mystery holds few surprises. Still, the Soviet society Ryan portrays will likely hold the interest of many readers, and could make for an original and diverting series in the future.
A detail-rich first novel, with some pacing issues, from an author with potential.