Posted: June 29, 2013 in Book Awards, Historical, review, Russia

51tmhNSvKwL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_SX385_SY500_CR,0,0,385,500_SH20_OU02_The Twelfth Department is the third book in the series featuring Moscow police Militia detective Alexei Dmitriyevich Korolev. The novel has been nominated for the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Crime Fiction Award.

The story is set in 1937 during  the height of Stalin’s Great Terror when people were frequently betrayed to state security  to obtain a bigger apartment or merely out of revenge for some perceived insult.

Korolev has planned to spend a week with his son Yuri but is assigned the investigation of the murder of Professor Azarov, a scientist who is doing work of vital importance to the Soviet state and the Revolution. Then Korolev is suddenly relieved and the case is taken over by the NKVD because of aspects of Azarov’s work at the research institute is so sensitive. 

Korolev stepped into the professor’s sitting room and could only imagine the satisfaction the dead man must have taken from the view-the Kremlin, the river and most of central Moscow were visible from the windows. you could leave aside Lenin Prizes, appointments to the Academy of Red Professors and any other accolade the State might throw in the direction of a deserving scientific fellow- this view and the size and number of rooms told anyone who needed to know that professor Azarov had been at the pinnacle of his profession.

Korolev and Yuri go off to stay at author Isaac Babel’s country retreat. But then the murder of Shtange, Azarov’s deputy, brings Korolev back into the investigation as he is co-opted by one department of the NKVD to investigate the murders and obtain details of research conducted at the institute under the auspices of another rival department of Chekists. The situation is complicated by Yuri’s disappearance and possible capture by the Twelfth Department. 

This is a police procedural but greatly embellished and raised above the ordinary by a good sense of the oppressive atmosphere, and a clever evocation of the bizarre frightening world of the Soviet regime of those years.  The narrative conveys a world that is a blend of George Orwell and Franz Kafka, with a touch of Mary Shelley. It is always difficult to write historical crime fiction that balances the criminal and the historical aspects, but William Ryan manages this cleverly not burdening the reader with too much detail, but still creating a very real and frightening world.

The educational value of this book is enhanced by the Historical Notes at the end listing the unpleasant fates met by the real life characters who play a part in the story. There is also a useful list of characters at the beginning that helps the reader reading unusual Russian names.  

‘Comrade Stalin values my advice from time to time,’ Weiss explained. Honestly, Korolev thought to himself, he should move to a different city-some place where people couldn’t possibly have meetings with people like Stalin or be connected with State Security or have mysterious benefactors who could land them apartments as big as a metro station. Omsk , perhaps. 

  1. Mrs P. says:

    Looking forward to catching up with this series soon – thanks for the great review.

  2. Margot Kinberg says:

    Norman – An excellent of an entry into a fine series. I hope we continue to see more of Korolev.

  3. Jose Ignacio says:

    This is certainly a book i’m very much looking forward to.

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