Monday, September 07, 2009

Billy Boyle Becomes a Top Mystery Series: James R. Benn's World War II Crime Fiction

Congratulations to Soho Crime author James R. Benn, whose newest Billy Boyle crime novel hit the ground running yesterday with an enthusiastic review from Marilyn Stasio in the New York Times.

If you haven't read the preceding three volumes, here's my take on them: Yes, this is a series that I think is best if you start at the beginning. But EVIL FOR EVIL, this year's volume, could be jumped into right away, for all the great material especially on Northern Ireland. At any rate, here are the other three, and maybe it will give you enough background to plunge directly into number four.

The series begins with BILLY BOYLE (2006). Consider Billy's situation -- he's a young Irish-American cop from Boston, following in the family business, and already the heir to plenty of his dad's stories about how things get done (good and bad). He knows that you use connections; that you accept a bit of grease for the wheels now and then; and that if you take too much, you won't be able to live well with the shame of it. Thanks to family connections, as World War II breaks out, Billy scoots off to office candidate school and expects a cushy stateside job in the office of his "Uncle Ike" -- not quite his uncle, but close enough, and better known at the time as Dwight D. Eisenhower. What neither Billy nor his family could have guessed, though, was that "Uncle Ike" would be suddenly picked to command the US Army forces in Europe. Ike sees Billy as his personal private investigator, able to track down criminal activity that could otherwise cripple operations -- and willing to keep it quiet and turn over the results to Ike for discrete and rapid action.

Billy's police background is real and potent, even though it's short; soon he's advising a buddy, Kaz, about how to question people and look for guilt, which is quite different from shock:
Guilt. I turned down a path in the garden, white roses hanging damp and heavy from thick shoots spiked with sharp thorns. Guilt will out, Dad used to say. Guilt will out, except if you're dealing with a crazy person. Normal people just couldn't keep guilt from showing, and all you had to do was know where to look for it. That was the hard part.
"Guilt has its own special look and sound."
"Sound? What do you mean?"
"A catch in the voice, an uplift in tone. You can hear it all the time if your listen. It doesn't even have to do with crime. It can be emotional." ...
"Are these the things a Boston detective thinks about on a case? Self-deception, guilt, the knife in the back?"
"Cops always look for things that are out of place. Very little things, which sometimes lead to bigger things, like why a knife in the back."

But there isn't a lot of time for talk, because Billy and Kaz are in the midst of plans for espionage and invasion. "It struck me how close I was to the center of everything, the historic first strike against the Nazis," Billy reflects as he finds out some of the unfolding plans. "I felt like I was ... important." Of course, most of the people around him don't agree -- he's a "kid" in all this, along with all the boys arriving from the States. Still, something inside him warms up to the adventure:
I was hooked. Just like I was hooked the first time I worked a homicide. I knew then that I was different from everyone else, set apart from the concerns of everyday life that swept everyone else forward, on a river of errands, work, dates, drinking, eating, and sleeping. I was going in a different direction, toward revelation and retribution, and there were damn few of us headed that way.

A few pages later, Billy inspects a body for signs of rigor mortis, explores clues, and discovers that he's got to become a successful spy catcher, or else let down Uncle Ike -- unthinkable.
But catching a spy will turn out to be far more direct an action than working through the complications of falling in love. Between Billy and Kaz, and two courageous British sisters, love and suspense become a fearsome tangle with tragedy hovering in the winds. This is war, after all. Billy may be able to solve the crime, but he can't prevent death and destruction from exploding all around him.

Brace for a swift change of geography and climate as Benn's second Billy Boyle unfolds in THE FIRST WAVE (2007): The scene is Algeria in North Africa, and the Vichy French are the wild card: As the US forces arrive and battle Rommel's Afrika Corps, will the French put their weight with the "liberators" or with the Nazi-led occupation? For Billy, the tasks of serving at the front are complicated hugely by the presence of Diana Seaton, the woman with whom he's deeply in love. When Diana is abducted, Billy's priorities take a forceful twist away from orders. He admits readily:
There's nothing like a corpse to put things into perspective. I was tired, but Jerome was dead. ... I would have thought he was still asleep except for his eyes. ... They seemed to seek me out, as if Jerome had a last message to pass one. All I got was a shover up my spine as I reched down and closed them. ... Two brothers dead for what they believed in when they both could have sat it out and played it safe.

Playing it safe isn't Billy's way, although it takes a war to help him realize this. He has friends to assist, and a rescue to mastermind. And even if he pulls of the rescue, will Diana already hate him for not arriving in time to protect her from humiliation, degradation, and powerful evil?

Yes, Diana, who is also a special agent, will re-appear in the third book, BLOOD ALONE (2008). But this time, Billy has a long way to go before he even remembers who she is and where he has left her: He's lost his memory, awakening in a field hospital in Sicily with a post-concussion amnesia. Long before he can even pull together his name and rank, or be sure of which side he's fighting on, he's a target of assassins. Why? What mission was he assigned to? And which group of deadly Sicilians is after him now? He's handicapped in part by how readily he sees even foreign people as like his own:
A wave of sadness passed over me. This village was awash in death, an everyday occurrence. Not from the war, but from a lifetime of killing labor and poverty. This was what my family had left Ireland to escape. This was what Sciafani couldn't escape, even with his position and education. The life of suffering of the peasant. It had descended upon him as he walked into the village, apologizing for the smell. It is better when it rains.

The basics of forensic analysis, the search for clues and motives, the revealing of how death is stalking its victims alongside the wholesale slaughter of war, these are Billy Boyle's tools, along with the sense of himself that he's brought along from Boston. Sure, these three volumes include great details of World War II, and of Eisenhower's work in the Allied command -- but they are first and foremost a deeply satisfying set of detective novels, with the sense of inner mystery and longing that enhances the best crime writing anywhere.

Kudos to James R. Benn, a librarian and media specialist and long-time World War II buff. By painting the human heart, he's opened the war to any reader who longs for a good story of "redemption and retribution."

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