In this world we find Captain Korolev, a war veteran and a criminal investigator with the militia. And into Korolev’s in-tray comes the case of a brutal (and brutally described) torture/murder of an initially unidentified young woman.
This being a whodunit, things don’t end there. There will be more deaths, and this first killing opens a squirming worms’ nest of politics, religion, greed, superstition and tradition. Along the way, Ryan introduces us to the political thugs of the Soviet state, the NKVD. And the thugs who hate the Soviet state, the criminals of the (admirably simply named) The Thieves, who have their own secrets and their own powers.
Korolev is very well drawn, and cleverly so. Few modern readers are going to love an out and out Stalin worshiper; but an anachronistically anti-communist militia man wouldn’t have been credible. Korolev fits cleverly between the two – he’s by no means a zealot, but he’s certainly a loyal Soviet citizen.
Neither is the history of Stalin’s Soviet Union used clumsily, I never got the feeling that I was being lectured, or that character or story was being misused to make a point about the Gulags, it all seems credible. In fact, I could have put up with a bit more, I would have loved to have found out more about the world of The Thieves, for example. Other details – the street children, the shortages, some great stuff on Moscow’s great football clubs – are nicely woven into the story.