The Twelfth Department

Written by William Ryan
Review by Gordon O'Sullivan

This is the third in William Ryan’s Soviet detective series set in 1930s Moscow. Captain Korolev, hero of the Revolution and now a police investigator, is looking forward to a well-earned holiday and a prized visit from his young son Yuri. This pleasant and potential future unravels quickly, however, when he is ordered to investigate the murder of an eminent scientist. As Korolev digs deeper, it emerges that the victim’s research was of vital importance to the top echelons of the Soviet state, and when another scientist is brutally murdered, he finds himself caught in a turf war between competing factions in the NKVD. As he struggles to satisfy both his masters and his own conscience, Yuri goes missing, and Korolev attempts to bring the investigation to a resolution that he can live with and that keeps his son safe.

I haven’t read the previous two novels in this series, but The Twelfth Department is so good that in fact, while not hindering the reader’s enjoyment, it further succeeds in whetting the reader’s appetite for the previous novels. The fetid and suffocating atmosphere created by Ryan, where friends, colleagues and even family cannot be trusted, is brilliantly realised and becomes progressively worse as the narrative unfolds and Korolev’s choices narrow. The characterisation is simply excellent. Korolev is a conflicted and complex character whose personal story intertwines with the twisted and turning investigative narrative while the other characters, such as the Moscow mob boss, Count Kolya, are all energised and smoothly drawn.

As a crime story this is excellent, but as a historical crime novel, it is outstanding.