Book review: The Twelfth Department by William Ryan

The Twelfth Department by William Ryan
The Twelfth Department by William Ryan

Crime is getting personal for Captain Alexei Korolev, the police detective who treads a fine line in the menacing shadows of Stalinist Russia.

As he battles to solve the murder mystery of two top Soviet scientists, his 12-year-old son goes missing… and tracking him down could put both their lives in mortal danger.

Welcome back to William Ryan’s dark and atmospheric crime series which pits a policeman with a conscience and a covert Christian faith against lethal law-breakers and ruthless state security spies.

The Twelfth Department is the third outing for the wily, tough but essentially humane detective who must be constantly be on his guard in the dangerous paranoia of 1930s Moscow where the forces inside the Kremlin are an everyday threat.

Korolev operates in a tense, closed-off world where one misplaced word, one thoughtless action could be the difference between a relative brand of freedom and incarceration… or even death.

Since the split with his ex-wife Zhenia, Korolev has only seen his 12-year-old son Yuri once in two years so he is looking forward to an unexpected but very welcome visit by the boy.

But his plans go awry when an eminent scientist is shot through the head in an apartment at Leadership House, home to generals, senior Party members and anyone who needs to be inside the Kremlin five minutes after the phone rings.

The building is just across the road from the Kremlin and State Security, the NKVD, don’t like blood being spilled so ‘close to where Stalin laid his head.’

Korolev is ordered to find the killer but it soon emerges that the victim, a man who it appears would stop at nothing to fulfil his ambitions, was engaged in top secret brain research of vital interest to those in the highest ranks of Soviet power.

When another scientist is brutally murdered, and evidence of the dead professors’ dark experiments is hastily removed, Korolev begins to realise that, along with having a difficult case to solve, he is caught in a dangerous battle between two warring factions of the NKVD.

Then Yuri is kidnapped and a desperate race against time gets underway in a city teeming with spies, street children and an underground group called the Thieves…

Korolev’s Russian Orthodoxy and his innate decency and honesty lend him a beguiling air of vulnerability in a country besieged by a state apparatus that wants its citizens to conform to a regulation model.

The corrupt forces ranged above and below him, and the disappearance of his only child, make this a very personal and perilous case for the police detective who hides his feelings and his religious beliefs behind a hard veneer of worldly cynicism and dry humour.

Ryan is an author growing in confidence and capability. He plays off the complexities and contradictions of Korolev’s character against an addictive, high-tension atmosphere in which suspicion, surveillance and secrecy are the constant by-products of Stalin’s ‘Great Terror.’

This is superb historical crime fiction with chilling plotlines, exciting and authentic investigative narratives and a truly impressive grasp of pre-war Soviet Russia’s oppressive, fear-fuelled society.

A brilliant twist on the traditional whodunit…

(Pan, paperback, £7.99)