OF ALL the writers in the new wave of Irish crime fiction, William Ryan has a strong claim on offering the most interesting setting.
The Twelfth Department is the third novel in a series featuring Captain Alexei Korolev, a police detective operating in Moscow during the 1930s, a period dominated by Stalin and overshadowed by the Great Terror.
“Crime fiction is all about truth and justice and morality, and these are all things that were manipulated in the Soviet Union,” says Ryan. “They didn’t necessarily mean what you thought they meant. Back then they had the concept of ‘bourgeoisie morality’ — you know, what we now consider to be a valid morality would have been frowned upon in Stalin’s Russia. Right and wrong were all subordinate to the political will. So when you have a detective who is basically looking for truth and justice; these are things that don’t really exist in the way we understand them.”
A quietly spoken man whose voice rarely rises above the babble in the bar of Dublin’s Buswell Hotel, William Ryan’s accent is difficult to pin down. Born in London to an architect mother and artist father, the young William had a peripatetic childhood, living in Galway and Dublin before moving back to London.
“My parents then moved to Saudi Arabia, and I went to school in Limerick,” he says.
These days, when launching his books, the venues are London and Limerick.
“I think the place I’m most from, at this stage, is Limerick. My wife is from Nenagh, so it’s just down the road. And I went to school in Glenstal Abbey. The monks tend to come along to the launches, they turn out in strength.”
Ryan went to Trinity College after Glenstal, to read Law.
“Well, in theory,” he laughs. “Basically, I spent my time in the library reading my way through the History section and the Fiction section, and anything else that was lying around. I used to read a book per day.”
He read widely, indiscriminately. “Wilbur Smith was a firm favourite. But at the same time I was reading the great Russian writers and Joseph Conrad and so on.
“So I wasn’t too selective, necessarily. I read all the good stuff but I read plenty of bad stuff as well. Well, I say ‘bad stuff’, but it depends on what your point of view of literature is.”
As a writer, Ryan eventually settled on the crime novel as his preferred form because it champions story above all other literary virtues.
“I think the reason why I’m writing crime fiction is because I like reading crime fiction. I wrote a very bad literary novel — or wrote half of a very bad literary novel — and eventually decided that this wasn’t a book that anyone would actually want to read. It just wasn’t me as a writer. I did a writing Masters with Don Paterson and AL Kennedy and John Burnside, all of whom were very supportive, but I think I was trying to write what they might write. One of the things I like about crime fiction is that it is about story, and that it’s important to respect the expectations the readers have of the form.”
Influenced by the short stories of the Russian author Isaac Babel — who appears as a character in his novels — Ryan settled on Russia in the 1930s for his period setting. The first novel, The Holy Thief (2010) was shortlisted for a host of awards, including the UK’s Theakston’s Crime Novel of the Year and the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award. The second, The Bloody Meadow (2011), was shortlisted for the Ireland AM Irish Crime Novel of the Year.
Police procedurals with a political edge, the books offer a fascinating contrast with novels written by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and James Cain, all of whom were writing during the period Ryan covers in his own books.
“Georges Simenon is another influence — all those hardboiled, tough-guy novels,” says Ryan. “I was looking for a voice for Korolev and I was looking at 1930s and 1940s movies, and I discovered that, curiously, it was that hard-boiled patter they used in Moscow. It was all, ‘You dirty rat’ and ‘You filthy Capitalist dog.’ Basically, they all spoke a little like James Cagney (laughs). So my novels share a lot of DNA with those writers from that period on the other side of the world.”
In The Twelfth Department, Alexei Korolev is co-opted by the dreaded NKVD, the Russian secret police, to assist in what appears to be a politically motivated murder. A pawn in the chess-obsessed hands of his superiors, Korolev is a compellingly conflicted character.
“Korolev has an interesting dilemma,” Ryan agrees, “because he has a public and a private morality and he has to balance the two. And that leads to certain inconsistencies in his own mental approach to things. Quite often he’s telling himself something with one part of his mind and not believing it with the other. It’s important to him to believe that things are getting better, that somebody is in control of this apparatus that appears to be out of control.
“At the same time, he has a background in which he fought in World War I — or the German War, as they called it — and the massive trauma that a whole generation went through. Many of those detectives were often world-weary and war-weary because they’d had that horrific experience, which led to revolution and instability and the extreme political landscape you had in the 1930s. I think that’s why a lot of these detectives are looking for truth and justice, they’re looking to do the right thing. And maybe they’re prepared to look the other way for the greater good, if it means achieving long-term stability and peace.”
There’s a fascinating Orwellian quality to The Twelfth Department, in that Korolev fully understands how malign and self-contradictory the State apparatus is, but has no choice but to follow orders.
“It’s a balancing act,” Ryan says. “Korolev is always uncomfortable with his position, but it’s not just about him and his conscience — it’s about his family, his friends, his colleagues. He doesn’t have a personal choice to make in this situation. He has to make a decision for everybody.
“But this is fiction, so we have the opportunity to make clear that he is a good man, that he’s always doing his best to do the right thing. That’s what detective fiction is all about, doing the right thing in difficult circumstances. They’re morality plays, and generally speaking, the ‘right thing’ works out in the end, even if it’s not to everyone’s satisfaction.”
One sub-plot in the novel represents Ryan’s personal investment in his storytelling, as Korolev’s son Yuri is held hostage to ensure that Korolev does the ‘right’ thing.
“When I wrote my last book,” he says, “[his son] Alexander was three months old. Writing this one, he was older, and he has become a much more important part of my life. So when, in the novel, I decided to put Korolev’s son at risk, that was a real challenge. I mean, the idea of children being manipulated in the way they were in Soviet Russia, that’s horrific. When parents can’t trust their children, and children are told not to trust their parents, that’s very interesting territory for a writer to explore.”