Cover image of "The Twelfth Department," a novel by William Ryan

Several English-language authors have written widely about crime in the old Soviet Union. Martin Cruz Smith’s terrific Arkady Renko series is the best known of the lot, but John Le Carre, Joseph Kanon, and others have notably entered the genre. One of the best is a relative newcomer, William Ryan, whose series of three novels featuring Captain Alexei Korolev of the Moscow Militia (police) makes for infectious reading.

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

An engrossing story

Alexei is called away from his first vacation in years with his 12-year-old son, Yuri. His boss insists that only he has the experience and the skills to investigate the murder of a prominent Soviet scientist who lives a stone’s throw from the Kremlin. The scientist is the director of a top-secret research facility.

As Alexei begins to dig into the private life of the director, the deputy director is also murdered. Soon, the case becomes tangled in high-level political maneuvering that engages the NKVD (predecessor to the KGB and today’s FSB). Alexei muses: “important people getting themselves murdered in important places was never good news for detectives . . .” He should know. He’s been in similar situations before.

The Twelfth Department (Captain Alexei Korolev #3) by William Ryan ★★★★☆

Stalin’s terror in the background

Set in the mid-1930s, against a backdrop of Stalin’s terror, The Twelfth Department finds Captain Korolev in a familiar clash with the NKVD. However, this time Alexei is caught up in a dangerous conflict between two different NKVD departments. Department 12 deals with “special projects.” It’s run by an extremely nasty secret police colonel who reports directly to the notoriously cruel head of the agency. Under the circumstances, the unit more familiar to Alexei deals with counterintelligence. It’s Department 5, which comes across as relatively benign despite the difficulties it has caused him in the past.

An intimate look at Stalin’s terror

The Twelfth Department is loosely based on the historical record about brutal Soviet experimentation in behavioral therapy on human subjects. Ryan’s account is entirely fictional, but the slant in the story is consistent with the murderous reality of Stalin’s terror throughout the 1930s. As the record shows, tens of millions of Soviet citizens perished from starvation, execution, or exile to the gulag. Included among them were many of the original leaders of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. Stalin perceived them as threats. In the twentieth century, only Hitler’s Germany and Mao’s China murdered on such a gargantuan scale.

This is one of The best Russian mysteries and thrillers.

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