THE HOLY THIEF
THE year is 1936, and we are in Moscow. Which is not a safe place to be.
After six years in power, Joseph Stalin's position as head of the Soviet state is unshakable, and his purges are just beginning. Two years later, hundreds of thousands of his countrymen will have been declared enemies of the state, and either executed or sent to the Gulag prison camps.
It is definitely not a time when anyone would wish to come to the attention of the authorities – especially the NKVD, Stalin's secret police. But if you happen to be a criminal investigator with the Moscow Militia, and have just been handed a high-profile murder case, you really don't have much choice in the matter.
Detective Captain Alexei Dimitrevitch Korolev is the unfortunate officer in question, and the central character in William Ryan's first novel.
It's a satisfyingly complex affair, with some excellently-observed characters who exist in a nightmarish world of fear, suspicion and danger.
Ryan skillfully captures the reality of life in the most spied-upon society in history. It is a time when no one can afford to make an unguarded comment, when every friend and relative is a potential informer and when paranoia is the default state of mind.
Korolev's personal nightmare begins when he is given the task of investigating what seems to be a straightforward, if extremely brutal, murder.
The mutilated body of a young woman has been found in a deconsecrated church, and it doesn't take long to work out that she has also been cruelly tortured.
Soon, however, another body is discovered. This time the victim is a member of the Thieves, the rulers of Moscow's underworld, and Korolev finds himself having to forge an unholy alliance with them as he seeks the truth.
However, the more evidence that Korolev unearths, the more dangerous his position becomes. In a world where no one is quite who they seem, and even his closest colleagues have their own secrets to hide, who is there left for him to trust?
The Holy Thief is an impressive debut from Ryan. It pulls off the difficult task of laying down ample foundations for a scheduled subsequent series without burdening its narrative drive with excessive back-story detail.
I look forward to Captain Korolev's further exploits under the cold gaze of Comrade Stalin.
THE SHEEN ON THE SILK
FOR her latest murder mystery, Anne Perry has forsaken her familiar world of Victorian England in favour of the thirteenth-century delights of ancient Byzantium.
It proves a rewarding decision.
The year is 1273, and the city of Constantinople is imperilled by crusading Italian and French troops who are massing on its borders. One possible source of salvation would be an alliance with Rome. But this would come at too high a price – it would mean the city surrendering its Orthodox religion to the Catholic Church.
Plotting is rife as allegiances ebb and flow in the swirling turmoil engulfing the city. A fact which is soon discovered by one of Constantinople's most recent arrivals.
Anna has come to the city on a quest to discover why her brother Justinian has been banished for a murder she believes he did not commit.
But to do that, she will need to be able to circulate in all levels of the city's society – something a mere woman would find impossible.
Her solution is one of Perry's most audacious conceits so far. Anna decides to pass herself off as a eunuch.
I know, I know; It came as a bit of a surprise to me, too. But apparently there were a lot more of them around in those days.
Anyway, after a shaky start Anna soon establishes herself as an accomplished physician. Before long she is meeting the city's movers and shakers, and the plot is off and running.
Perry is as meticulous as ever as she delves into the convoluted politics of the age. But there are other rewards to enjoy too; from the sensuously-portrayed vibrancy of the city itself to her confidently drawn main characters.
Perry may have had a few misgivings about temporarily deserting her familiar Monk and Pitt characters. As it turns out, she needn't have worried. RC
Translated by Edith Grossman
IT IS the year 2000, and the bloody conflict that has beset Peru for 20 years is finally at an end.
And in the tiny Andean city of Ayacucho, birthplace of the Shining Path guerrilla movement, thoughts are turning to the events for which it now prefers to be known – its Holy Week processions.
However, the tourists flooding into the city are not as safe as they think. A serial killer is on the loose.
To his immense surprise and utter bewilderment Felix Chacaltana Saldivar, a serially-unambitious, eccentric and ultra-methodical district prosecutor, is placed in charge of the investigation.
Saldivar is an intriguing choice as the central character to what at first seems to be a straight-forward murder mystery. His wife (perhaps unsurprisingly) has left him, presumably unable to compete with the attention he prefers to give to his dead mother. He is beset by blood-drenched nightmarish visions, enjoys poetry and likes nothing better than to spend an afternoon filling in forms. A fearless investigator he clearly is not.
In the hands of Santiago Roncagliolo, however, he becomes something far more important – the means by which we can begin to understand the debilitating terror of life spent under an oppressive regime.
Red April is a memorable book, and for all the right reasons. RC
Fighting them on the beaches
The Normandy Landings that took place on D-Day involved by far the largest invasion fleet ever known. The scale of the undertaking was simply awesome. What followed them was some of the most cunning and ferocious fighting of the war, at times as savage as anything seen on the Eastern Front.
As casualties mounted, so too did the tensions between the principal commanders on both sides. Meanwhile, French civilians caught in the middle of these battlefields or under Allied bombing endured terrible suffering. Even the joys of Liberation had their darker side. The war in northern France marked not just a generation but the whole of the post-war world, profoundly influencing relations between America and Europe. Making use of overlooked and new material from over 30 archives in half a dozen countries, D-Day is the most vivid and well-researched account yet of the battle of Normandy. Antony Beevor's gripping narrative conveys the true experience of war.
Knave of Spades
When Alan Titchmarsh left school at 15 little was expected of him. But in the ancient greenhouses of the local nursery Mrs T's little lad found his spiritual home, learning his trade and the strange ways of human nature. But the comfort and familiarity of his home in the Yorkshire Dales would soon be left behind as he journeyed south to college and then to Kew Gardens.
Spells as a teacher and editor followed, until fate took a hand when he landed a job on BBC's Nationwide as their gardening presenter. In Knave of Spades Alan Titchmarsh shows us just why he has become not only our favourite gardener, but a popular writer too.