Monday, September 12, 2016

World War II Suspense, in BLUE MADONNA, James R. Benn

With this 11th in the Billy Boyle World War II mystery series, author James R. Benn crafts a tight and un-put-downable suspense novel and proves that the past is crammed with surprises -- and danger.

Fans of the series know that Billy Boyle's Irish-American cop family thought they were getting him out of wartime danger by helping him get assigned as a crimesolver for a slightly related U.S. officer, Dwight Eisenhower -- but when "Uncle Ike" took over running the European part of American operations in World War II, Boyle's investigations moved global. Wherever Eisenhower and his top leaders need Boyle to solve a crime, he's there.

As BLUE MADONNA opens, Billy Boyle looks like he's lost his stripes as punishment for taking part in running a black-market scam. Even though he knows his actions were part of successfully solving a crime earlier in the war, Boyle realizes he can't fight the court martial system; he's headed for prison and humiliation.

So it's a great relief to discover the whole trial is a setup to infiltrate Billy into a massive criminal operation that's snagging shipments of necessary supplies from the Army and speeding them out into England's hungry black market. With eventual backup from his colleague Kaz, and the possibility of seeing his beloved Diana in her undercover role in occupied France, Billy leaps into the infiltration operation -- which lands him in France on June 5, 1944, the night before the Allies invade at Normandy.

And that's the pin that James Benn provides to move us one notch further along in the global war that engaged so many combatants for so many years. Checking a "World War II timeline," I realized Anne Frank and her family were still hidden when Billy Boyle dropped from an airplane, to tackle this mission behind enemy lines.

You might think knowing the "history" would lower the suspense. But Benn's gift of walking the timeline in short bursts of action also involves tapping into little-known events and connections of the action -- this time, into the French Resistance with fresh intimacy. The "Blue Madonna" turns out to be a painting, in a mansion-turned-fortress that once hid a very different kind of resistance. Tunnels, diverse enemies, and the oncoming force of the war raise the ante, and when Billy and Kaz finally land, they're in huge danger:

Cold sweat dripped down the small of my back.

Slowly sounds from the woods overcame the silence. A rustling of leaves. A scurry in the underbrush, a small creature on the prowl.

A boom echoed in the distance. An explosion miles away. We duck-walked to Kaz, who held a finger to his lips as his gaze flitted about. . . "I thought I heard voices," he whispered. "What do you think that explosion was?"

"The Resistance," Topper said quietly. ...

"Of course," I said, trying not to betray my nervousness. It was eerie being out here, alone on a hilltop in enemy territory, not knowing who might be closing in or what was going to happen next.
Billy must pass himself off as crooked -- which is what the fake court martial should have established -- and figure out who in France is connected with the biggest criminal gang in England, and how. Meanwhile, his surroundings include a multiple murderer (if he can just figure out which of the dangerous men around him that might be), as well as the Germans, whose motives are both war-related and criminal, and not easy to sort out.

This is a fast-paced tale of action and risk, and Billy Boyle works hard to gain enough facts to get close to resolving his investigation. Just as we know World War II goes on beyond BLUE MADONNA, we know Billy must survive also ... but who could he lose from his close friends and loved ones long the way?

I especially enjoyed learning from the author's notes of all the "real" components woven into this exciting crime-and-war novel. It's getting harder with each book of the series to remember that Billy Boyle is a fictional sleuth. Of course you can read BLUE MADONNA without having read any of the earlier titles -- Benn's skill as a series author makes that easy -- but series fans will shiver with even more feeling as Diana and Billy and their team plunge once more into necessary dangers.

From Soho Press, with release on September 13. When you've read BLUE MADONNA, you may have a list of people you want to share this with, and they absolutely don't need to read the "usual" war fiction -- this series is rich with friendship, puzzle-solving, and adventure, and lots of intriguing twists. I'm adding it to my holiday giving list, for sure.

[PS - More Billy Boyle/James R. Benn reviews here, or browse the entire review blog here.]

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