Wednesday, September 01, 2010

James R. Benn, RAG AND BONE - A Billy Boyle World War II Mystery

There are plenty of political and military adventures embedded in the years of World War II, and at the opening of his fifth Billy Boyle mystery, James R. Benn samples the tensions of December 1943. Billy Boyle, a young Boston police detective whose family thought he'd get an "easy war" by working for his "Uncle" Ike (General Eisenhower), is looking forward to some rest and recreation on the island of Capri, outside Naples harbor. His hard-earned relationship with his British girlfriend Diana has sweetened; the weather is gentle; and he's been given his silver bars for first lieutenant.

But Billy's task is to tackle the complications that Uncle Ike needs swiftly and quietly solved, whether behind the lines or in front of them -- and his holiday hopes are dashed when a murder in London threatens to unravel the alliance of Yanks, Brits, and Russians. Colonel Harding gives him the bad news and orders to head north, in advance of Eisenhower's upcoming visit. It looks as though the murdered man might have been a member of Russia's secret police, the NKVD. Billy presses for more information:
"What was he doing in London?"
"Getting a bullet in the back of the head. This may involve the Poles. See Lieutenant Kazimierz as soon as you can and find out what he knows. You leave as soon as we dock in Naples."
And that, at least, ought to be the silver lining to the cloud -- Billy hasn't seen his friend Kaz in a couple of months, and if it weren't for giving up the chance to spend time with Diana (soon to head out on her own mission), Billy'd be excited and eager for the chance to reconnect.

Yet there are storms ahead, because the killing seems to mimic a mass murder of thousands of Poles -- and it looks as though Kaz may have one of the strongest motives for the death. Loyalty to country, friend, and Billy's strong ideas of how investigators ought to behave quickly tangle, and when a powerful underworld figure begins to pressure Billy, and German bombings resume in London, even the guidelines that Billy's Boston police relatives had given him aren't enough to keep him safe.

Benn's deft weaving of friendships and conflicts deepens the narrative, giving it depth and value. And though the absence of Diana from most of this volume may be a bit disappointing for those who've followed Billy's struggles with her independence and daring, RAG AND BONE is delightfully filled with the new revelations about Kaz and details of a little-known but significant massacre that challenges the Alliance. What price will Poland pay in order to survive? Billy's actions help shape the bottom line.

Curious about the title? It's from a Yeats poem mentioning "the foul rag and bone shop of the heart." An amazing amount of control may yet turn on whether Billy can dig up enough strong lines of poetry himself, as he races to resolve the crime, capture the murderer, and escape being killed along the way.

You don't need to read the other Billy Boyle adventures before this one -- Billy Boyle, The First Wave, Blood Alone, and Evil for Evil -- but you'll have more fun if you do, especially Evil for Evil. What a great way to start September.

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Speaking of war and its effect on plotting and character: On Saturday we'll welcome novelist Katherine (Katie) Towler with her reflections on the role of 20th-century wars in her Snow Island trilogy.

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