Fresh Meat: The Twelfth Department by William Ryan

The Twelfth Department by William RyanThe Twelfth Department by William Ryan is the 3rd in a historic series set in Stalinist Russia featuring investigator Captain Alexei Korolev (available July 9, 2013).

The year is 1937, and Captain Alexei Korolev of the Moscow Criminal Investigation Department is facing his toughest case yet.

And he must tread carefully, because the Narodnyy Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del (NKVD)—the infamous law enforcement agency of The Communist Party—are scrutinising everyone, watching their every move and thought. There is no room for error in 1930s Russia.

Korolev is put in an extremely unwelcome spotlight when he is called upon  in to investigate the death of a scientist from a mysterious human behaviour research unit. And to complicate matters, the body has been found at one of the city’s most prestigious addresses.

“You know the place— that new building across the river from the Kremlin. What’s it called again?”

“You mean Leadership House,” Korolev said, fearing it could be no other. He caught Slivka looking across at him. She was fresh from the wilds of the Ukraine—well, Odessa—and new to Moscow, so Slivka probably hadn’t heard of the building before—but she was a smart girl and, to judge from her expression, was putting two and two together.

She was right—Leadership House, as its name and location implied, was home to generals, important officials, senior Party members, directors of vital State concerns and the like—in short, the type of people who needed to be inside the Kremlin five minutes after the phone rang.

“You do know the place,” Popov said, having the good grace to appear a little guilty. “Good, that makes things easier.” The first inspector considered his pipe for a moment or two. “Needless to say, it’s not somewhere I can send just any detective. It has to be someone who has experience in such . . .”

Then a second scientist is killed—is a pattern starting to emerge? Korolev certainly thinks so, but his investigation is hampered by the unwelcome attentions of two NKVD departments—including the notorious “Twelfth”. The two sections are bitter rivals, and Korolev soon finds himself caught in a deadly tug of war.

With the help of Slivka, his assistant, Korolev learns that the first scientist to die, Azarov, was responsible for overseeing some extremely controversial and decidedly shady experiments in behavioural modification, carried out on orphans and street children. He also suspects that the second scientist, Shtange, threatened to expose the work of the instititute—which led to his elimination.

This is certainly a crime novel, but it has lovely, subtle tinges of the spy thriller about it.

Korolev walked outside the park’s railings while Petya the Persuader,their informant, followed the tree-covered path that ran alongside the sky-reflecting blue water. Slivka was a few paces behind Petya, wearing a pretty white dress, her short blond hair looking almost golden in the dappled sunlight. Her lips might be a little thin and her expression grave, but she was a good-looking woman and he watched men’s heads turn one after the other to follow her procession through the park. He wondered if they’d be so keen if they knew the hand nonchalantly resting inside her open purse was wrapped around the butt of a service-issue revolver.

Korolev glanced at his watch. If Petya was to be believed, Shabalin would meet him on the fourth bench to the left of the pavilion—in just a few minutes’ time. He adjusted the ticket machine he had slung over his shoulder—part of his disguise as a tram conductor on a break—and found himself, to his surprise, wishing there was a sandwich in the tin lunchbox he was carrying—as opposed to his Walther.

Korolev kept his eyes moving—examining each of the pedestrians who passed him, watching for anyone or anything that seemed out of place. If things went as he hoped, there’d be a small scuffle and Shabalin would be in the bag. If things didn’t go to plan? Well, if he had to shoot Shabalin’s legs from him, then so be it.

Korolev is a good man, a conscientious and honest policeman, and the father of a young son, Yuri. He also has an ex-wife called Zhenia, and when Yuri goes missing, and Korolev hears that Zhenia has fallen foul of the secret police, he comes under huge pressure. Korolev is a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders—he must try to keep both NKVD departments happy, solve the murders, and save his wife and son. It’s a huge ask, but our hero is certainly up to the job—even if his methods can, at times, seem a little off the wall.

The sense of time and place is palpable, and I liked the way the characters were allowed to talk like us, rather than some B movie Russian baddie:

Korolev sighed— he’d been temporarily assigned to the NKVD, without his having been given much choice in the matter, and now, as a result, he was being investigated by them.

“It feels like I’m a football being kicked around a field.”

“An excellent analogy,” Dubinkin agreed. “Except one side wants to puncture you while the other want to keep you in play and use you to score a goal. Which side do you hope wins?”

“Christ,” Korolev said.

“He’s not playing. He’s not even the referee—Ezhov is. It’s as well to be clear about things—if we aren’t successful in this investigation of ours, things will not go well. Not for you, not for Sergeant Slivka, and probably not for me either.” Dubinkin didn’t seem too bothered by the prospect, inhaling a lungful of smoke with a contented expression.

I’m in awe at the amount of research which must have gone into making this book appear so realistic and of its time. The dark, oppression of life in Russia under Stalin lurks in the shadows of every page.

The Twelfth Department is the latest in a series of Koralev books, but it is a great introduction to William Ryan’s work. I confess the author and the character were new to me, but I didn’t feel any disadvantage at coming late to the party.

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Sandra Mangan recently moved to Blackpool, a seaside resort in the north west of England, to a new home that is definitely a work in progress. She is an avid reader, with crime fiction at the top of her wish list—though an occasional Nora Roberts manages to creep onto the bookshelf. You can also follow her on Twitter as @OfTheTimesShop.

Read all posts by Sandra Mangan for Criminal Element.

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