Friday, September 23, 2011

A MORTAL TERROR, by James R. Benn

The newest Billy Boyle World War II mystery from Connecticut historian, librarian, and author James R. Benn reveals a deft touch in turning "we know what happened" into suspense, with a fine investigative thriller embedded in 1944's European theatre of war. Well done, and worth the reading!

Series readers already know Boyle as the Boston Irish rookie cop, recruited to assist "Uncle Ike" -- General Eisenhower, a family connection by marriage -- with delicate police matters best kept behind the scenes, so that dignified warfare can continue. This is the sixth volume; the others, Billy Boyle, The First Wave, Blood Alone, Evil for Evil, and Rag & Bone, have taken aspects of the Second World War's varied locations and themes, and woven them into lively murder investigations by this appealing young man whose sense of honor and determination to solve crimes have by now netted him some appealing friends and an attractive -- and undercover -- long-term lover, Diana Seaton.

In A MORTAL TERROR, Diana makes only a brief appearance at the start, although Kaz, Billy's very European pal in police work -- Lieutenant Baron Piotr Augustus Kazimierz, late of Poland and now on the general staff -- comes through as a working partner as Billy labors to discover who in Italy is killing an escalating set of powerful officers. And, more to the point, why.

Not only does Benn handle the twists of plot smoothly and effectively, but he's mastered the very challenging skill of making "known history" into a packet that includes questions, uncertainties, and dubious outcomes. Here's a passage as an example of how he also weaves in just enough detail on military terms and procedures to keep me informed enough, but not distracted:
I decided to radio Colonel Harding and ask for Kaz to be sent down from London.

The column finally passed and the traffic moved along, toward Caserta. I ran through the leads that I had to follow. Pay a visit to Bar Landry in Acerra and see what the scuffle was all about, and why Landry and Flint went down there to pay damages. Find out whom Louie owed his next paycheck to. Go back and find Major Arnold, Schleck's second-in-command, and see if he'd be more talkative. Ask Sergeant Jim Cole why he didn't tell me about knowing Landry and Galante. An infantry division is a big place, about fourteen thousand guys and full strength. He should have mentioned it, even if it was only a coincidence. He didn't, and I wanted to know why. I also needed to find out how Galante had gotten a squad killed, and why Cole was supposed to know about that. Maybe it was just a rumor that Schleck glommed onto, but if true, it would be a motive for revenge. Then ask the same question around the 32nd Station Hospital, and see what Galante's colleagues had to say.

It was a lot of legwork, and none of it might end up being important. But it gave me the illusion of being on the right track, and I might get lucky and stumble onto something I'd recognize as a clue.
I love this series, and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys a rattling good tale. From the ending of this one, it's clear the next volume will contain a strong dose of what I especially like in Benn's books: challenges to Billy's growth and depth as a person and an investigator (in his family's Boston cop tradition!), and to his ties among his friends and his beloved. So -- grab a copy, and get up to speed.

Yes, you can read this one on its own, but it's a much better read if you've consumed the earlier five in the series. You'll understand better how important Kaz is, and why the book's final twists hold such significance. Go for it!

Shelve this one with your Charles Todd and Jacqueline Winspear books. And that in itself should tell you what an unusual "war" series this is -- equally accessible to war junkies, readers who savor emotional development, and those who just love a good plot. Thanks, James R. Benn. Here's a tip of the hat to you, and to Soho Crime, a publisher with great taste in fiction.

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