I received my copy from Mantle and rated it 5+ stars.
Captain Korolev of the Moscow Militia is supposed to have a week off when his son Yuri comes to visit him. Unfortunately arrangements like that are never certain in Moscow in the 1930’s and the day after his son’s arrival Korolev finds himself ordered to investigate the murder of an eminent scientist. Because the murdered man had close connections to those in power this is going to be a sensitive investigation, but it doesn’t become clear how sensitive until Korolev and his Sergeant, Slivka, are called off the case again within 24 hours. Korolev’s opportunity to spend time with his son doesn’t last very long though. Yuri and Korolev have only enjoyed one day in the country together when two State Security agents come to pick him up and bring him back to Moscow. Yuri flees from the threatening looking and sounding men and Korolev is brought back to Moscow not knowing where his twelve year old son is or whether he is safe.
Back in Moscow Korolev discovers that a second man has been murdered, the assistant of the first victim, and that he is back on the investigation. This time though he’ll be working for State Security rather than the Militia. With two competing State Security departments having a vested interest in the investigation and the outcome, Korolev finds himself a pawn in their power-struggles. With Yuri now captured by one of those departments, it seems that our investigator has no choices if he wants to see his son again. Korolev finds himself breaking his own rules, fighting his conscience and depending on questionable allies in order to bring the whole affair to a conclusion he can live with.
Wow, all I can say is ‘wow’! This is an amazing book with a fascinating story.
As he did in his two previous Korolev books, William Ryan has managed to impress and captivate me. He writes wonderfully plotted mysteries but it is the setting and the historical detail that make these books true works of genius. This is a mystery/thriller so you’d expect the tension that results from the crimes under investigation and the intrigue around who might be guilty of them. But with the story set in Moscow in 1937 where Stalin’s Great Terror is in full swing, there is a lot more suspense. There is the constant menace and fear resulting from the characters living in a society where nobody is innocent of anything, a place where a good man is afraid to do an honest job because the results he may come up with might not satisfy his superiors. And William Ryan does a brilliant job showing this underlying threat in all its horrifying glory. All Korolev wants to do is solve the crimes he’s ordered to investigate. He doesn’t want to get involved in politics and yet finds himself, time and again, trying to balance his conscience with the safety of those around him and himself.
A lesser author might have taken this setting to write a story in which the fear and suspense are unrelenting. Ryan however knows that life and people don’t work that way. Even in a totalitarian society, where danger lurks around every corner and the wrong expression on your face could get you arrested, people have to live their lives; they still fall in love, make jokes and worry about the little stuff. The fact that Korolev does just that, even while his whole life is in turmoil, makes this character and his story more realistic and captivating. In the midst of all the tension there are lighter moments such as:
“If murders could be committed without producing corpses then he’d be a happier detective.”
Or there is the chapter set in Moscow Zoo. While it plays an important part in the overall story, it also gives us a nice insight into Korolev’s private life and his feelings. I loved the scene involving the elephant and the children’s fascination with the lions and their feeding habits is something every parent will recognise. But most of all I loved that the Zoo Keeper mentioned in the story, Vera, is a real person, who lived and worked there at the time.
There is a wonderful balance as far as the characters in these books are concerned as well. We get our fair share of scary party officials, which is to be expected given the setting of the story, but we also encounter Count Kolya, the Chief Authority of the Moscow Thieves and his niece, Sergeant Slivka who is Korolev’s colleague. And the relationship that is slowly developing between Korolev and Valentina, the woman he shares an apartment with, is a delight to watch.
I could go on gushing about this book indefinitely but I won’t. I’ll end this review with this advice: Go and get the book, read it and be enthralled. If you haven’t read The Holy Thief and The Bloody Meadow yet I’d advise you to read them first. Having said that, it isn’t necessary to have read those two books in order to enjoy The Twelfth Department.