My column this week for Kirkus Reviews is devoted to an interview with William Ryan (shown above), the Irish former corporate lawyer, now residing in London, who’s written two historical crime novels set in the Soviet Union of the 1930s. The first of those, The Holy Thief (2010), was nominated for the British Crime Writers’ Association’s John Creasey Award and was shortlisted for both a Barry Award and the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award. Its new sequel, The Darkening Field (Minotaur), continues the investigative exploits of Captain Alexei Dmitriyevich Korolev of the Moscow Militia’s Criminal Investigation Division, a man described by The Irish Times as “an ordinary plod, meticulous and thorough, working in an extraordinary time: in Stalin’s Russia, [where] fear reigns supreme, and every line of inquiry could lead the detective on a one-way trip to the gulags.”
You’ll find my Kirkus column here.
* * *As a bonus, I’m posting below the parts of my exchange with Ryan that didn’t make it into Kirkus, due to space limitations. Here he talks about his dramatic career transition, his fascination with the era of the 1930s, and Korolev’s rebellious religiosity.
J. Kingston Pierce: Why in the world did you give up a successful existence as a corporate attorney in London to chase after a career as a crime-fiction writer?
William Ryan: I’ve always written in my spare time and it just felt like the right time to give it a chance. I’d been working as a lawyer for 15 years or so, and I’d probably become a little bored with it and a little frustrated that I seemed to have less and less time to do this thing which I really enjoyed--which was writing. I was lucky enough to get a spot on the Creative Writing Masters course at St. Andrews University in Scotland, and the next thing I knew I was a student again.
Some people are a bit ambivalent about the usefulness of creative writing courses, but I think you get out of them what you put in, and I was very lucky that the tutors on the course were writers like A.L. Kennedy, Don Patterson, Douglas Dunn, and John Burnside--all of whom were happy to encourage me when they thought I was on the right track and more than delighted to kick me in the behind when they thought I was going wrong. Don Patterson, in particular, was brutally honest when he didn’t like something--but it’s that kind of criticism that teaches you to look at your writing objectively and become ruthless with yourself, which is what you have to do if you’re going to write as well as you can.
When I finished the Masters I sat down to write “the novel,” as you do, and was about halfway into a very literary effort when I took one of those objective and ruthless looks at what I’d done and realized (a) it wasn’t very good at all and (b) it wasn’t something I’d ever pick up if I came across it in a bookshop. So I stopped and began The Holy Thief, the first of the Korolev novels, which is absolutely the kind of book I’d read. I only hoped other people would like my work as well--which, so far at least, seems to be the case.
JKP: Are you a big reader of historical thrillers? Which books from that subgenre would you most recommend?
WR: Two books that have stood out for me recently are R.N. Morris’ The Cleansing Flames and Jason Goodwin’s An Evil Eye. Both are part of a series--Morris’ being set in 19th-century St. Petersburg and Goodwin’s at the same time but in Istanbul. Morris and Goodwin have a lot of qualities in common--they know their stuff, they write elegantly, and they tell great stories. I highly recommend them.
JKP: Was your choice of a Russia-based detective series influenced by, say, Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko novels? Stuart M. Kaminsky’s Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov novels? Or other such works?
WR: I’d say the biggest influences were probably Dashiell Hammett, Georges Simenon, and Raymond Chandler. I've always been fascinated by the 1930s in general, and those three were certainly very useful in trying to create the atmosphere in the Korolev novels. I didn’t read Martin Cruz Smith until I was pretty much finished with The Holy Thief, but I think he’s a great writer and I wish in some ways I’d read him earlier. Alan Furst would probably be another author who is in the back of my mind when I write, and maybe Boris Akunin as well.
JKP: Why have you “always been fascinated by the 1930s”?
WR: I suppose it’s partially because we have quite a vivid idea of what it was like to live then, as for the first time we have films with sound. Obviously it’s also a time of enormous political and economic upheaval, on top of which there was the expectation in Europe that another war was imminent--at a time when the First World War was still a very recent memory. It’s also when [Joseph] Stalin and [Adolf] Hitler are at their most powerful--and looking back on it, it seems completely incredible to me that those men ever reached the positions they achieved or were allowed to commit the crimes they did.
JKP: Why include the real-life Russian journalist-writer Isaac Babel in your stories as Korolev’s “good friend and neighbor”? You don’t integrate a lot of other genuine historical characters into your stories. Why did Babel make it in?
WR: Well, he was indirectly responsible for the novel in that the work I did for a screenplay about him formed the basis of the research for The Holy Thief. I didn’t intend to have him in the book, but he slid in somehow or another and he solved a few plot problems for me by doing so, which I’m grateful for. He isn’t the only real person in the books, though. The Starostin brothers played football for Spartak in the 1930s before they ended up in the Gulag system, and the poet Ginzburg in The Holy Thief is based on Osip Mandelstam, whose wife, Nadezhda, wrote two brilliant memoirs--Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned. In retrospect, perhaps I should have changed Babel’s name as well, because it seems a little disrespectful in some ways. But on the other hand, I hope it will inspire some readers to search out his work. I don’t think they’ll be disappointed if they do.
JKP: I, for one, will be interested to see what you do with Babel in your future books. After all, A Darkening Field was set in 1937. Later installments in the series will move the action closer to 1940, when Babel was executed as an alleged spy, after returning voluntarily from a trip to Paris. I can imagine your integrating that episode into a future Korolev novel, giving you the chance to use that research you once did for the screenplay. Is that an idea at the back of your mind?
WR: A similar idea is bubbling away, but with Korolev instead of Babel. I’m planning to send him to New York in the book after next to investigate a killing that has implicated a senior Soviet diplomat. I think it will be interesting to look at American through his eyes and obviously, at the end of the novel, he’ll face the same dilemma--whether to return or not--and know that any decision will have adverse implications for the friends and family he has left behind in Russia.
But your question also highlights that, when you have real people in historical novels, you don’t have much flexibility when your fiction runs up against fact. I can play around with most elements in the books, but not when it comes to Babel. Although if I could rewrite history by some strange, magical turn of events, I’d like to do it for him--it’s such a great tragedy that he wasn’t able to write more than he did.
JKP: Alexei Korolev is a secretly religious man, who hides his Bible beneath the floorboards of his quarters because the Soviet state sought to eliminate religion. Does this character facet exist simply to demonstrate the captain’s maverick nature, or for some other reason?
WR: One of the fascinating things about Russia is how the oppressed religions have come back so strongly since the end of Communism. The only explanation is that belief in God and the Orthodox tradition never went away. There are plenty of diaries and memoirs that talk about Party members publicly attacking the church while allowing their children to be baptized, but it’s still surprising that this underground belief survived for 70 years. It’s that public/private split again--which I find fascinating.
JKP: How do you establish period authenticity in historical fiction without showing off too much research and thus retarding the storytelling pace?
WR: When we read novels written in the past--like, for example, Chandler’s The Long Goodbye--there naturally isn’t much explained and, as modern readers, we don’t expect there to be or even really notice. So I’ve tried to get to grips with ’30s Moscow as much as possible and then written the books as if for someone who actually lived there at that time. Obviously there are things that have to be explained, but I try to keep the explanations as short as possible and build them into the storytelling. I have a glossary and other useful materials on my Web site for readers who want to know more.
JKP: What is your response to critics who have said that your storytelling pace can be rather, well, slow?
WR: A few have picked up on pacing, but others think it moves along at a good pace--it seems to be a matter of personal opinion. I tell the story the way it feels it should be told and it seems to work for most people, but there will always be some who take a different view. That’s the great thing about writing, though--every writer has a different approach and every reader has different priorities. All the same, it probably doesn't help the pace that a lot of the tension in the Korolev novels is caused by his uncertainty. Quite a lot of the time Korolev knows that taking the wrong approach can have fatal consequences for him, so he has to consider carefully what action to take. So if someone is looking for action scene after action scene, that might frustrate them. It’s probably also a result of writing about a very, very different society--even though I do my level best to keep the research off the page, things do have to be explained and that may slow things down as well. It’s a shame, perhaps, that the novels have been described as “thrillers,” which probably gives rise to certain expectations. But I’m pretty sure they’re page-turners, and I think most readers appreciate that novels don’t always have to follow set rules or hit certain marks.
JKP: Finally, I must ask: Has The Holy Thief been released yet in Russia? If so, what responses have you received from readers there?
WR: It’s just about to come out there, so no responses as yet. I’m nervous, though--I can only imagine how the average Russian is going to react to some Irish guy telling them about their own history.
READ MORE: “Author R&R with William Ryan,” by B.V. Lawson (In Reference to Murder).