Review: William Ryan – The Twelfth Department

The Twelfth Department, William RyanWilliam Ryan’s historical mysteries featuring Captain Korolev, a Moscow Militia police investigator, are becoming another ‘must read’ for me. The books are packed with a wealth of period detail; set in the mid years of Stalin’s rule, the Terror is beginning to be felt collectively around the city and everyone fears the knock on the door in the middle of the night. There’s always a good mystery at the heart of Ryan’s books and The Twelfth Department is no exception.

Korolev is on holiday and intends to spend time with his young son Yuri, who has made the trip to Moscow by train. However, on the first day of Korolev’s leave he is asked to visit the apartment of an eminent scientist who has been shot dead. To his dismay, Korolev discovers that the ambitious and disliked scientist was undertaking research which is being monitored by those in power. He is taken off the case and travels with Yuri to the countryside, but during the trip his son disappears. After the death of another scientist, Korolev is seconded to State Security to investigate the killing and becomes embroiled in the political machinations between warring NKVD departments.

It’s usually around the third book in a series that familiar characters take on more substance and this is certainly the case with The Twelfth Department. Both Korolev and his sergeant, Slivka, have an interesting relationship, admiring each other’s capabilities but constricted by the roles in an increasingly paranoid department. The relationship between Korolev and Valentina, the woman he shares his apartment with, is also developed more and displays a softer side to the Captain. It also suggests an interesting sub-plot for the next book.

The Terror element isn’t overdone: it’s ever-present and pervades everyone’s decisions but the crime/mystery element is given space to flourish. Ryan always presents a solid police investigation and here, there are plenty of twists and turns until we reach the conclusion. The evocation of thirties Russia is excellent and even minor scenes, such as the description of the Moscow zoo and the delight that children take in watching the animals, bring the era to life.

Overall I think that this is the best book yet in a series that is going from strength to strength. The book isn’t published until the 23rd May but I was lucky enough to be sent a copy by Mantle, the publisher. And naturally I couldn’t resist reading it.

Review: William Ryan – The Bloody Meadow

The Bloody Meadow is the second book in the series set in 1930s Stalinist Russia featuring Militia Captain Alexei Dmitriyevich Korolev, who we first met in the excellent The Holy Thief.

In The Bloody Meadow, the purges of Stalin continue unabated. When one night Korolev is summoned by Colonel Rodinov of the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, Korolev assumes he is under arrest and picks up the bag he has already packed in anticipation of the fateful ‘knock on the door’. In fact, Korolev is ordered to the Ukraine to investigate the death of a young film assistant, Maria Alexandrovna Lenskaya, who was the mistress of a high ranking official. The woman died whilst working on the set of ‘The Bloody Meadow’, a Communist propaganda movie being shot near Odessa on the Black Sea.

Korolev quickly establishes that the woman was murdered and once again, to investigate the case, he has to pick his way through the treachery of officialdom and the close knit honour amongst the ‘thieves’, Moscow’s organised crime elite.

The opening passage of the book describes Korolev making an arrest at ‘Workers Hostel Seven’, a building teeming with displaced workers, exiled priests and poverty stricken women and children. The passage not only introduces us to the underbelly of Stalin’s Moscow but also sets the scene for the rest of the book. We get a sense of the paranoia pervading all of society, from both within the police and amongst ordinary people. Only the ‘thieves’ seem immune from the backstabbing and trickery of Communist rule, largely because they have their own code of honour as restrictive as Stalin’s.

There were less graphic descriptions of violence in this book than in The Holy Thief, although there was a pervading sense of menace throughout. The decision to set the book outside Moscow and in the countryside of the Ukraine gave the book an interesting perspective, and you never lost the sense of the much documented atrocities committed by the Soviet army against the native Ukrainians during the period.

Korlev continues to be an interesting character, and once more we see glimpses of the conflict between Communist atheism and the vestiges of the Orthodox church which has gone underground but is remembered by the ordinary people, including Korolev.

I enjoyed reading this latest book in what is an excellent series and I’m looking forward to the next instalment.

The book has been published in the US as The Darkening Field.

Other reviews can be found at The View from the Blue House, Mean Streets, My Place for Mystery and Confessions of a Mystery Novelist.

The writer’s website is here.

Review: William Ryan – The Holy Thief

I think I’ve said in a previous post that I’m a big fan of historical mysteries but they have to be good. I don’t particularly mind which period they cover as long as the setting isn’t allowed to crowd out the other elements of a good crime read. An example of how the genre can be done well is The Holy Thief by William Ryan where intelligent plotting and a modern style of writing is used to depict bloody events in Salinist Russia.

At the book’s heart is Captain Alexei Korolev of the Moscow Militia CID. When a girl is found murdered in a deconsecrated Moscow church, he struggles with his sense of outrage at the brutality of the killing and the ramifications for his career and indeed his life when it becomes apparent that the Russian hierarchy are taking an interest in the investigation. The victim is identified as an American citizen with an interest in Russian icons and is therefore deemed ‘political’ by the Moscow NKVD, the forerunners of the KGB. As more bodies emerge, Korolev also has to delve into the word of the ‘Thieves’, the Moscow underworld with their trademark killings and twisted honour to bring the case to a resolution of sorts.

Set in 1936 Moscow at the start of Stalin’s purges, this turned out to be a different book than I had expected to read. Details of the purges were there, with even police officers fearing for their lives, but the focus of the book was on the Moscow underworld and, interestingly, the trade in icons being sent out of Russia. The role of the Orthodox Church during the Soviet era is something I know nothing about and the book details how Russian émigrés arranged for icons and other religious artefacts to be sold to buyers in the United States with the collusion of the Soviet state who wanted them removed. This aspect of the plot doesn’t dominate but I found it fascinating how Korolev struggles with his Soviet atheistic convictions and his instinctive respect towards holy buildings and artefacts.

The police investigation has its own twists and turns as Korolev is himself watched by the fearful NKVD and some police personnel die in mysterious circumstances. Korolev is an interesting character with plenty of room for development over future books. His relationship with the pathologist Dr Chestnova in particular is well done. But what made this book stand out for me was intelligent writing married to an interesting plot set in a fascinating period. There are a few brutal passages that I winced over but given the period setting and cast of characters did not seem gratuitous.

Thanks to the author for sending me a copy of the book. His website is here.

The book has been reviewed by Bibliomouse, Mean Streets, The View from the Blue House and It’s a Crime.