Moscow, 1937. Captain Korolev, a police investigator, is enjoying a long-overdue visit from his young son Yuri when an eminent scientist is shot dead within sight of the Kremlin and Korolev is ordered to find the killer. It soon emerges that the victim, a man who it appears would stop at nothing to fulfil his ambitions, was engaged in research of great interest to those at the very top ranks of Soviet power. When another scientist is brutally murdered, and evidence of the professor’s dark experiments is hastily removed, Korolev begins to realise that, along with having a difficult case to solve, he’s caught in a dangerous battle between two warring factions of the NKVD. And then his son Yuri goes missing . . .
There are few pleasures in life akin to immersing yourself in a great read, and after the brilliant series opener The Holy Thief, followed by the equally compelling The Bloody Meadow (seek them out if you haven’t already), I settled down for another trip to the claustrophobic and suspicious world of Stalinist Russia. So how did The Twelfth Department measure up to its predecessors?
Building on the strength of this already established series, Ryan not only gives the reader the requisite amount of tension and skulduggery that we have come to expect from this excellent series, as Korolev finds himself at the bidding of two masters investigating a dastardly plot involving the brainwashing of dispossessed youths, but also skillfully interweaves an altogether more personal and introspective strand to Korolev himself. The central plot displays its usual strength, as the main theme addresses the necessity for the mind control of the average Soviet citizen to adhere to the rules and constraints of the totalitarian regime. Building on the palpable tension and inherent suspicion of others that such a society produces, Ryan constructs a world where every statement made and action taken must be in accordance with being a model citizen and woe betide those who speak or act of turn. Finding himself at the behest of the feared NKVD, Korolev must endeavour not only not to displease his masters, but also retain his essential humanity in what unfolds as a particularly unsettling investigation that strikes close to his heart and home.
What makes this a different read to the first two books is the addition of Korolev’s son Yuri to the mix, on a long overdue visit to his father, and this enables Ryan to expose the more personal fragility of Korolev, which had only been addressed previously in his tentative relationship with Valentina (who shares his apartment with her young daughter). As Korolev refamiliarises himself with his son, aspects of Yuri’s schooling weigh heavily on him, again drawing on the mind control theme of the central plot, and their relationship seems stilted at first before the layers of tension begin to break down. Ryan balances their strangeness to each other beautifully, and we begin to see the softness that lays beneath both their veneers. As Yuri becomes a pawn in the plot, Korolev must balance his natural role as protector and father with the needs of his professional demeanour to uncover the truth behind a series of deaths in the scientific community, and the disappearance of other young boys. Likewise, the father/son theme has an impact on another character at the heart of these books, as Count Kolya (the leader of the criminal gang The Thieves) also turns to Korolev when his own son disappears, demonstrating for both men the intrinsic value of family aside from their public personas as detective or criminal. As Ryan unfolds these other layers to Korolev and Kolya, the book illustrates the depth and control of Ryan’s characterisation, supported by a whole host of other equally well-defined protagonists connected to both Korolev and the murder victims.
So with exceptional plotting, the assured building of atmosphere and the seamless interweaving of historical detail, supported by a more introspective feel to the characterisation, Ryan has once again produced a superlative read. As I say in the introduction this is a series that deserves attention, so if you haven’t had the pleasure of reading these yet you are in for a treat…
William Ryan is an Irish writer living in London. He was educated at Trinity College, Dublin and the University of St Andrews and worked as a lawyer before taking up writing full-time. His first novel, THE HOLY THIEF, was shortlisted for the Theakstons Crime Novel of the Year, The Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award, The CWA John Creasy New Blood Dagger and a Barry Award. His second novel, THE BLOODY MEADOW, was shortlisted for the Ireland AM Irish Crime Novel of the Year. Visit William’s website here: www.william-ryan.com
With huge thanks to William for the sneak peek of The Twelfth Department during its development- it was an honour- and also a special mention to Katie at Macmillan…