Sunday, August 29, 2021

Soviets and Night Witches Link With Billy Boyle, in ROAD OF BONES from James R. Benn

You could spend weeks, months, a lifetime, reading your way through the evidence of what happened during the Second World War.  And sorting out heroes and villains.

Or instead, you could trust the kindness of author James R. Benn, who unearths unusual details of the war that enchant and inform, while investigator Billy Boyle pursues crime on behalf of the American forces. Blunt-spoken as this Boston Irish detective can be, he's also dedicated to supporting his friends and allies, and this 16th Billy Boyle World War II Mystery is another "keeper" for solid enjoyment and excitement.

After an exhilarating opening chapter in which Billy fills in on a bombing run in a B-17 Flying Fortress (Benn makes it easy to slipstream names and terminology in mid scene), the point of his new mission -- partnered with "Big Mike, aka Staff Sergeant Miecznikowksi -- is an Office of Special Investigations order that the team sort out a double murder at an airbase ... in Russia. More specifically, it's at an air base in Ukraine, part of a plan Billy recalls: "Take off from England, land and refuel in Russia, then hit the Germans again on the way back."

With the Russian allies blaming the Americans and sure the murderer must be a "Yank," immediate action is called for -- Billy and Mike need to identify the real murderer(s) to avoid a devastating international incident. And just to make things a bit more challenging, they'll need to collaborate with a Russian cop to smooth things over.

If that only meant the attractive and American-enchanted Lieutenant Maiya Akilina, life would be good. But complications pile up swiftly: Big Mike's transport abandoned him where he's likely to end up in a prison camp, and Billy's got to locate and retrieve his partner. Worse yet, the Russian colleague assigned is Captain Kiril Sidorov, and Billy already knows him from a London experience soaked in treachery in several directions.

"My homecoming was not as I expected," Sidorov said, a sigh escaping between his lips. "I have been in a labor camp in Kolyma. ... Little food, very cold, long hours. Many prisoners die there. Because of the frozen ground, the authorities decreed that interments be made in the roadbed as it is dug. Much more practical. Hence, road of bones."

"Why did they send you there?" I asked. I had a pretty good idea, but it seemed like Sidorov wasn't aware of the role I'd played. Otherwise, he'd be at my windpipe right now.

As the murder investigation reveals a drug component and potential inventory crime, Billy (and, he hopes, Big Mike) must watch their backs in every direction. 

Special interest in ROAD OF BONES comes from collaboration with a little-remembered group of women aviators on the Russian side, the Night Witches -- once again, author James R. Benn dips into details of the historical war and finds intrigue and adventure. Adding personalities (and charming figures) to these female heroes is par for the course in this crimesolving series, lightening the interactions among the investigators and adding charm and amazement to what might otherwise be a very male-focused plot line.

Memorable twists to the action include seeing a Russian officer demoted from NKVD status to prisoner (delicately sketched with much sorrow), and wrestling with an alliance that puts the Americans at risk of Russian betrayal. For instance, is it better for the Russians at the base to assume that Billy's been shot down in the midst of action? Billy admits, "They may think I'm already dead. It may be easier to let them think so a while longer." His host congratulates him on learning to think like a Russian: "There is an old saying. 'Close to the Tsar, close to death.'" For Billy, "it made perfect sense, God help me."

Series fans know that at least Billy is likely to survive the action, whether imprisoned or not. But the risks to his friends multiply, there's endless confusion about who's an enemy and how, and it doesn't just take the rewards of crime to produce lies and betrayal in wartime. 

This lively series makes for great reading. No need to read the other titles before this one, but there's plenty of incentive to pull more onto the TBR shelf afterward, to enjoy a gifted storyteller and a full deck of unusual historical details.

ROAD OF BONES releases on September 7, from Soho Crime, an imprint of Soho Press.

PS: Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

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