Review: The Twelfth Department – William Ryan

the-twelfth-department-william-ryan5 of 5 stars

Captain Korolev 3

My version:
Historical Fiction Soviet Union

“Korolev, let’s be clear – I want to know who killed those men and I want to know why. But I also want to know what was going on at this Institute – and it occurs to me that while you’re investigating this murder, you may uncover things that could be of interest to me.”

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 in the very top ranks of Soviet power. When another scientist is brutally murdered and evidence of the professors’ 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…

A desperate race against time, set against a city gripped by Stalin’s Great Terror and teeming with spies, street children and thieves, The Twelfth Department confirms William Ryan as one of the most compelling historical crime novelists at work today.


The third of William Ryan’s books set in 1930’s Russia and involving the character of police Captain Korolev. It’s the best of the three, but I sure do hope it’s not the last.

It’s quite a slow-burning and, appropriately enough, Russian doll-type tale. Lots of layers of thought-provoking atmosphere and moral problems all under the watchful eye of the secret police and Uncle Joe. It’s more subtle, more involving and all-round better than the previous books. Though, you couldn’t have got here without them, they have been leading here. Like stages on the way to the summit.

This sort of thing has been done a lot before, I’ve read several series now in this era – Sam Eastland, Tom Rob Smith, etc – however, The Twelfth Department is at least equal to the very best. I think the ‘attraction’ if you can call it that, with this era, is because to me, that is to us, western Europeans, it’s hard to even contemplate how it could have got to this stage. Especially now as it’s gone (though perhaps opponents of Putin would disagree). The paranoia on all sides, is stifling. And paralysing. Inaction is action. Though doing nothing is not an option. Neither is doing something.

It’s written in, or at, a leisurely pace. For me, this gives enough room for you to fill in the gaps. Here, it’s you, your imagination, that creates the nightmare world, the words on the page just light the touch-paper and then retire, as it were. In part, the interesting sections are those where I’m thinking around the thought Korolev once expresses of ‘what happened to our revolution?’ Korolev does, if I remember rightly, span pre- and post-revolution Russia. His bemusement is how did we let ‘them’ steal the revolution he and other Russians deserved. The ‘ordinary’ people had a right to own the revolution. The ‘intellectuals’ took it over, then used it to secure their own place at the top of the pile. Before the people could take a breath, take a step back and see what was happening, it was too late and then, all they could do was survive. Hope to survive. Or not. No one knew how. The ripples analogy sat the end, should also be used for the ‘guilty by association’ process. You must have known something, because you knew the person we arrested. If you say you didn’t know anything, you must be lying. If you’re married, your wife knew. Your mother father knew, the people they knew, knew…

I found actually, I had more sympathy for Korolev’s situation here. Not because it involved a search for his missing son, just that I could finally see what was making him tick and why he was, despite his son and ex-wife and colleagues, all alone. Had been all the time. He could rely on no one, no one was going to help him…or were they? The only people he perhaps could rely on, were those we wouldn’t think of, leading to another of my thoughts about his situation, that a decent man had more in common with the criminal than his equals or peers.

As I say, if you are interested in the post-revolution period in Russia, there are some really splendidly well-done books to go at. Which one of the three would I grab from my burning house? This one.

You can buy The Twelfth Department at The Book Depository

I’m on Goodreads as well.

Related reviews on Speesh Reads:

the-holy-thief-william-ryanThe Bloody Meadow

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