William Ryan's series set in Stalin's Russia is thoroughly enjoyable but the second entry, The Twelfth Department (2013, Minotaur) strained credulity in one key aspect. I'll put it to you, Gentle Reader: if you are a parent, would you really put the demands of the state, even this terrible, horrible, no-good state, ahead of the welfare of your young son?
You shouldn't judge a man until you've walked a mile in his shoes, and lord knows good shoes were hard to come by in the USSR of the 1930s unless you knew someone or were someone. So I suppose, who am I to say that the kindly Korolev, Our Hero in the classic good-guy-trying-to-make-a-go-of-it-in-a-dangerous-totalitarian-state mold, isn't making the best decisions he can, given the circumstances? In The Twelfth Department, we find Korolev looking forward to spending some quality time with his son Yuri, sent on a visit from his divorced wife. This time, instead of being cold in Moscow, it's hot, August-in-Central-Europe-hot, which means that the normally bundle-up Muscovites are out and about enjoying the city's parks and open spaces searching for coolness. You can see it coming: Korolev stops in to the precinct to tidy up some paperwork in anticipation of a little holiday and before you can say Bob's-your-uncle, he's caught up in a murder case. Of course, then he's told to butt out because it is a matter for State Security, the dreaded NKVD a.k.a. the Chekists. Except that thanks to some internal nastiness there, Korolev is pulled back in by one department (the 5th) and then learns that another (the 12th) wants a piece of the action too - but at the expense of the 5th! Why all the interest from State Security? Because the murdered men (now two of them) were working on top secret projects that had to do with MIND CONTROL and how it might be used to influence enemies of the state. It is all very sinister and a little bit James Bond, but given what we know now about the Soviet Union under Comrade Stalin, it is just plausible.
What is harder to swallow is that when Korolev's young son disappears, and he himself is brought in for questioning by one of the aforementioned departments, he responds by agreeing to work with the State Security to "solve" the murders. A colleague back at the precinct is set on the task of finding the boy, and other friends help out too. Now, Korolev is given little actual choice in the matter, being caught, as noted above, between rival departments of the NKVD. And, it becomes clear later that his son's security may in fact depend on his working with the Chekists, and in figuring out which of the rivals will actually help him. Still, before that knot becomes apparent, I'd have liked to have read a scene in which Korolev perhaps wrestled with the dilemma a little more.
The tension between the security departments, and the tightrope Korolev must walk to preserve his and his son's lives acts as a sort of rope tow, keeping the story moving forward and eventually becoming the central element. While Ryan's prose rarely gives me the delicious pause that some other writers' do, every once in a while he hits his mark solidly. Consider this:
"It was strange to spend a night with another human being so close by, and periodically Korolev found himself waking, just about, and listening- though for what, he couldn't quite remember at first. A dark silence surrounded him. then, his ears attuning, he might here a car's engine a few streets away, or perhaps some mysterious metallic grinding from down near the river, or a late-night walker's footsteps. Nothing unusual, in other words. It was like that, Moscow - it moved around in its sleep." (11)
(Another night description!) What I love about this paragraph is the way it lays the night so carefully around Our Hero, and it is a place in which he is comfortable. Yet the idea of the city moving around in its sleep is unsettling, suggesting the constant watching and listening, and the vigilance necessary to self-preservation that is the backdrop to any story set in this place and time.
The good-guy-in-a-bad-world theme is common in most of the crime and espionage literature that I read. I like Ryan's work for the stories, but more so for the research-informed setting and plot scaffolding. He offers a little "Historical Note" at the end, discussing his inspiration for this story, and research. In particular, the attention he pays to physical setting - what was where in the city, and when (337-338) - is what makes these books compelling reads. For some visuals that spectacularly reinforce the story, check out Ryan's website. We may live in a world where the idea of the collective good is a joke for many, but lord knows it beats the opposite extreme. For some.