November 2006

Colleen Mondor

fiction

Billy Boyle: A World War II Mystery by James R. Benn

In many respects, James R. Benn’s mystery, Billy Boyle, appears to be a new entry set in classic World War II turf. A young American soldier finds himself in Europe in 1942, and amidst the drama of the larger conflict, he ends up embroiled in two mysteries involving treason and murder. The story should just be about the planned Allied invasion of Norway and the question of who knows what and why someone had to die because of that (maybe). But the protagonist is a former Boston cop, and while the investigations he finds himself in are not what he had planned for his wartime service, he still conducts them in relentless fashion. There is also something more about Billy Boyle that makes him unique among military sleuths: Billy doesn’t want to be a soldier and feels no all-consuming patriotic urge. He is not at all what our Band-of-Brothers-Greatest-Generation-loving culture has come to expect from stories about this particular war.

Billy’s reticence about the service is explained early on in conversations with his father and uncle before he leaves Boston and in his own stark reality as a young detective. As he puts it after learning about Pearl Harbor, “Everybody was all worked up over the Japs, but it seemed to me that I had enough problems with the Chinese gangs down in Chinatown without taking on the rest of the Orient.” The Boyles are Irish (obviously) and very committed to careers on the police force. On the subject of military service however, they suffer no small amount of trepidation. Partly this is because the elder generation of Boyles did fight in World War I and one of them, Billy’s Uncle Frank, did not come home. Fighting might be the Boyle way (“If somebody comes after the Boyles, then it’s personal and we all back each other up”), but fighting across oceans is a bit hard to fathom. As Billy’s father explains: “We’ve worked hard to build something for you here and we’re not going to let this war with the Japs and Germans take it away from you. It’s not our war. No one attacked Boston or Ireland. So we’re going to find a way to keep you safe.”

The Irish connection is a very real one, especially for Uncle Dan, who “like any good IRA man… hated the English.” Finding a way to keep Billy out of the war was impossible in 1942 America, however. The solution for keeping him safe was found through political connections that got Billy into Officer Candidate School and a distant family connection on his mother’s side that got him on the staff of her second cousin’s husband, a general who worked in the War Department in D.C. Unfortunately, in 1942, this “uncle” had been transferred to England where he was now commanding the U.S. Army European Theater of Operations.

For the military buffs among you, it is obvious who Billy went to work for: General Dwight Eisenhower. Upon arriving in London, however, Billy finds himself awesomely underqualified to contribute in any way to the war effort. No one is impressed by his meager qualifications but Ike, who seems to have a need for a real Boston cop on his staff. Before Billy has a chance to figure out what he should be doing, he finds himself in the company of Second Officer Daphne Seaton of the Women’s Royal Naval Service, and Lt Piotr Augustus “Kaz” Kazimierz of the Polish Free Corps. They are rapidly on their way to a British estate which has been granted to the Norwegian government for use in exile. The Allies are planning to invade Norway but amidst all the talk at Beardsley Hall, Billy’s particular abilities end up being needed to ferret out a suspected German spy within the Norwegian government. It is not something Billy feels capable of doing, but uncertainty and confusion seem to be the order of the day in his new life. And then a high ranking member of the Norwegian government shows up dead, an apparent suicide. Billy doesn’t buy it -- more from instinct than anything else -- and so he spearheads a murder investigation that reveals layers of lies and twisted loyalties among the Norwegians and Germans that are all too clearly part of this particular war. As the lone American, Billy is perplexed by all the divided loyalties that surround him and to readers new to this aspect of the war it might be surprising to learn just how complicated it was for the Norwegian government to participate in plans to bomb their own country in an effort to save it. Sitting here in America, insulated by our great deep oceans it is blissfully simple not to see the many complexities that countries in much tighter quarters must navigate while fighting. Billy blunders along with his Yankee ideas of right and wrong and truth and lies until he finds himself on a small boat in the North Sea approaching the Norwegian coast.

There are several plot twists and dark surprises in Billy Boyle, several moments that will surprise readers with their stark honesty of just how high a cost must be paid by individuals during wartime. It’s an honest story and thus cannot deny the harshness of its setting, or the sadness of its history. People are wounded in Billy Boyle, and not just physically. But for mystery lovers it promises a complex tale of good and evil that lives in a shade of grey. There is a whodunit-and-how to sort out, but a lot of other things to learn as well. And all the while Billy matures before the reader’s eyes, as he finds out what his father and uncle knew all along: Boston might be dangerous and filled with its own set of divided loyalties for a cop but it can not compare to the fields of battle.

Kudos to author Benn for showing us lesson in such a well crafted manner and here’s hoping that Billy will continue to make his way through his Uncle Ike’s world for many titles to come.

Billy Boyle: A World War II Mystery by James R. Benn
Soho Press
ISBN 1569474338
304 pages