Wednesday, August 28, 2013

BLIND GODDESS: New Billy Boyle WW II Mystery from James Benn

I marvel at each new Billy Boyle World War II mystery from James R. Benn: We all know how the war ends, and we recall some of the prominent moments along the way -- yet Benn provides enormous suspense within each of his mysteries, by delving into the details of life at the front and behind the scenes.

A BLIND GODDESS opens in March 1944, with an estranged friend of Billy's, Tree (nicknamed for his height), uneasily asking for a hand in England as the troops gather for the promised upcoming invasion of France. Sergeant Eugene "Tree" Jackson doesn't want to ask Billy Boyle for anything; their friendship, back in Boston, ended very badly, tilted by Tree's black skin and Billy's Irish connections. But there's been a dire miscarriage of justice in the rural town where the Black forces are waiting for their part in the invasion, and the victim is the gunner for Tree's Tank Destroyer Battalion, and the unit needs him back right away, before the orders for Europe arrive.

This eighth in the series digs into race relations at mid century, plainly and boldly. Negro units in the American forces experienced the bite of segregation, name-calling, and abuse even as they prepared to give their lives with their White compatriots. In fact, at the opening of A BLIND GODDESS, White Americans have just smashed every barroom drinking glass in the town, as they prepare to take over where the Black ones have recently been served -- "So they wouldn't have to drink from the same glasses as Negros had," Billy immediately perceives.

Billy's close partner in his investigations -- which he does for his vaguely related "uncle" General Eisenhower -- is Kaz, a Polish officer, Lieutenant Kazimierz, and as the Americans explain the particulars, Kaz is moved to comment (just in time to keep the "frenemies" from more friction):
"It is interesting, you know," Kaz said, in a casual conversational tone. "The Germans have the same rule in Poland. Poles have to stand aside when any German walks by, upon pain of death."

"Yeah, but there's one big difference," Tree said. "I'm going over there to kill those god-damn Nazis who make you step off the sidewalk. But when I go home, white men will still want me in the gutter."
Because Tree's request is an unofficial one, Billy can't put official time into looking for the real criminal to replace Tree's gunner in prison. Moreover, Billy's direct superior, Major Cosgrove, wants him to tackle a new case of murder where an American soldier is involved, and where there's some hidden reason to treat all investigation very carefully. Soon he's enmeshed in what looks like a German/English politically charged tangle of possible espionage, murder, and threats -- while trying to clear up the racist coverup that's snagged Tree and his men.

A side track that will interest those already following the series involves Billy's long-time girlfriend, Diana Seaton, in her struggle to get British politicians to acknowledge the factory-style killings in the concentration camps in Germany, so that urgent action can be taken. But there's no need to have read any of the preceding seven books -- this one stands well for itself, and I'm looking forward to a second reading, still marveling at how clearly Benn has used his mystery plot to point to the largest miscarriage of justice Americans have experienced: that of the color line.

A BLIND GODDESS moves at intense pace to a highly satisfying ending -- with one thread still dangling, and a strong suggestion that the next book in the series will be back on the European continent, in the action of the trenches and the invasion. I can hardly wait!

NOTE: Publication release of A BLIND GODDESS is scheduled for Sept. 3.

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