‘The Twelfth Department’ by William Ryan

by John Boland

THIS is the third William Ryan novel to feature Moscow detective Alexei Korolev during Stalin’s reign of terror, and it’s as richly satisfying as its two predecessors.

The author is an Irishman in his 40s who was educated at Trinity College before becoming a corporate lawyer in London, though his career took a literary turn when an interest in Soviet history and politics was spurred by reading the fiction of Isaac Babel, who perished at the hands of the Russian authorities in 1940.

Set a few years earlier, Ryan’s novels feature Babel as Korolev’s neighbour, though he’s an unseen presence in the new book, where his only function is as owner of the rural dacha in which Korolev and 12-year-old son Yuri briefly stay until state security goons come calling and Yuri vanishes.

The plot, suggested by a BBC documentary about 1930s mind-control experiments on Soviet children, sees Korolev investigating two brutal murders at a hush-hush scientific institute and finding himself in all sorts of bother as he tries to balance pursuit of the truth with loyalty to shadowy and competing masters of a paranoid and ruthless regime.

As in the earlier books, Korolev is an engagingly flawed hero – squeamish in the presence of dead bodies, disconcerted by elevators, wary of his superiors, fearful of making politically dangerous decisions, yet “trying to bring an antiquated version of justice to a society that thought telling a joke about the leadership a more serious crime than murder”.

Not an easy task when you’re part of a system that encourages its citizens to denounce their friends and neighbours and where you’re never sure whether your superiors and colleagues are allies or enemies, yet the dutiful, decent, gruffly courteous and stubborn Korolev persists against all the odds.

Ryan’s achievement is to make his characters and their milieu so tangibly immediate that you feel you’re actually in their presence. Obviously his historical research has been considerable, but he’s managed the rare feat of subsuming it into his narrative in such a way that it’s never obtrusive – you really do have the sensation of being on that particular street or in that particular apartment block or municipal building alongside Korolev, his tenacious sidekick Slivka or any of the other vividly realised characters who inhabit the book.

The Holy Thief, published in 2010, was an immensely assured introduction to this police detective and his perilous Moscow beat; The Bloody Meadow (2011) confirmed that first book’s promise; and The Twelfth Department is even more engrossing, especially for those readers who’ve come to regard Korolev as a trusted friend and sceptical moral guardian in an otherwise unsettling world.

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