The Billy Boyle Investigations Deliver World War II Noir at Its Finest
Military meets Mystery in James R. Benn’s Billy Boyle books. In this series—which just celebrated its thirteenth investigation with Solemn Graves (2018)—Benn has created a pitch-perfect synthesis of the two genres, seamlessly blending the historical scope of the former with the narrative drive of the latter. Think Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers meets Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series. Both are dark and gritty in their own ways, and in Benn’s hands, the two elements complement each other to create a world that is historically realistic but also mysterious and thrilling. From battlefronts to back alleys, military treason to personal revenge, this is World War II Noir at its finest.
First introduced in 2006’s Billy Boyle, the title character is a Boston “Southie” cop who makes Detective three days before Pearl Harbor. Still in his early twenties, it’s quite an achievement for someone so young to make Detective. He might have had a little help, though, from his father and uncle, who are also on the force, and a copy of the test might have found its way into his locker, but Billy would have made a competent officer either way—had the war not interrupted his plans. Not wanting to see their oldest boy slaughtered on the front lines, his family pulls some strings and contacts Billy’s Uncle Ike to see what can be done. Uncle Ike is none other than General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who hires young Billy as his division’s detective in a case to stop a saboteur from spoiling an upcoming invasion of Norway.
What makes Billy such a unique lead for a mystery series is that his profession doesn’t fit the standard mold of either the institutional cop or the private detective. Being a military officer, Billy is not at liberty to act as cavalier as an independent investigator might. Uncle Ike hired Billy because of his family connections as well as his street smarts and his ability to handle himself no matter what situation might arise. What Uncle Ike doesn’t know, however, is that many of Billy’s accomplishments might have been slightly exaggerated, which means that Billy has to do a lot of his learning on the job, under dangerous—and deadly—circumstances. Dodging bullets from both Nazis and treasonous Allies, Billy tries to recall the lessons his father taught him on the streets of Boston and apply them to the landscape of war-ravaged Europe. A loyal son, Billy wants to do his family and country proud—and also live long enough to make it home safely.
In Solemn Graves, Billy finds himself in Normandy, just one month after the D-Day invasion. “Ripening apples and decaying corpses—the scent of Normandy,” remarks Billy shortly after his arrival at Pressoir Janvier, a large apple farm that uses the fruit calvados. But Billy wasn’t invited here for drinks. The body of Major David Jerome has been discovered in Madame Janvier’s farmhouse, his throat slit and next to him an overturned table and chair and a goblet with traces of morphine. A young woman, Yvonne, was discovered near the crime scene, her clothes covered in blood. Did she kill Major Jerome? Or is the blood from trying to help him? it turns out the blood is only one of many secrets that Yvonne holds: traumatized by the war, she is unable to speak, and no one is even certain of her real name. One thing Billy has learned time and again during his investigations—war has produced many different types of victims, and nothing is ever as simple as guilty and not-guilty.
Solemn Graves is a wartime variation on the classic parlor mystery, complete with the corpse in the parlor and a mysterious parade of late-night visitors who rival each other in politics and over Madame Janvier and Yvonne's affections. The Allies aren’t the only ones lingering around Pressoir Janvier; feuding factions of the French Resistance are there, as are lingering Nazi units. Billy has seen first-hand the destruction caused by war—and here, in Solemn Graves, he bears witness to a new wave of devastation as the French try to reconcile their own actions under Vichy and Nazi rule.
Returning for Solemn Graves are two of Billy’s investigative cohorts—Baron Piotr “Kaz” Kazimierez, the only surviving member of his royal Polish family introduced in the very first Billy Boyle book, and Sgt. “Big” Mike Fair, an ex-cop from Detroit who risked his neck in Blood Alone to save Billy as well as the love of his life, Diana Seaton. A British secret agent who is frequently undercover in Axis territory, Diana is only able to share fleeting moments with Billy between cases. It is never enough time, but they are torn between their affection and their devotion to the importance of their jobs.
After pursuing a spy bent on halting Allied progress in the debut Billy Boyle, our hero is sent to Algeria in The First Wave (2007) to assist with the surrender of Vichy militants, but an outbreak of black market activities lead to a series of murders that become very personal for Boyle. In Blood Alone (2008), Billy awakens in Sicily with no memory of where he is, how he got there, or even who he is. Hidden in his clothing is a note that reads, “To find happiness, you must twice pass through purgatory.” The amnesiac Billy might not know who he is or what the note means—but someone else certainly does, and soon he is on the run from the MPs for a murder he did not commit, negotiating Allied deals with the mafia, and trying to piece together his own tortured memory.
Billy’s complex family roots with the Boston IRA surface in Evil for Evil (2009) after he is sent to Ireland to investigate the disappearance of guns and ammunition and the murder of an IRA member. A Russian official is murdered in London in Rag and Bone (2010), and in light of the atrocities of Katyn, where hundreds of Polish military prisoners were slaughtered, Kaz is suspected of the murder out of revenge. Revelations of horror continue in A Mortal Terror (2011) as Diana is working to expose Nazi concentration camps and is smuggled into Switzerland for a covert meeting with British Intelligence officer Kim Philby. Meanwhile, Billy is in Italy, chasing a serial killer that is targeting Allied officers and signs murders with playing cards. First was a ten of hearts, then a jack—and it is up to Billy to find the killer before the next card is played.
Billy finds himself at Death’s Door (2012) when he is smuggled behind enemy lines to investigate the murder of a monsignor in the Vatican, which is also the last known whereabouts of his missing girlfriend, Diana. Back in England for A Blind Goddess (2013), Billy is caught between two cases. First, Eugene “Tree” Jackson, an old friend from Boston and sergeant with the all-African American 617th Tank Destroyers, wants Billy to exonerate one of his soldiers accused of murder. And second, Billy is called to the English countryside to look into the murder of an accountant but suspiciously finds himself restricted from questioning crucial witnesses.
World War II nears the pivotal turning point of D-Day in The Rest is Silence (2014)—however, its success might be compromised when a dead body turns up at the site of the “top secret” rehearsal, Operation Tiger. Billy crosses paths with a future president in The White Ghost (2015) when he has to prove the innocence of PT boat skipper Jack Kennedy. Billy loses his stripes in Blue Madonna (2016) when he is accused of black market activities and demoted to a private, while in The Devouring (2017) Billy and Kaz face near-death after their plane wanders into a bombing run on a covert mission to investigate Swiss banks that might be collaborating with Nazis.
Two years and one month elapse between Billy Boyle and Solemn Graves, but within that timespan, Benn has managed to capture the depth of personal growth that his characters have experienced—from love and loss to testing the limits of their own moral, emotional and physical endurance. Benn also has managed to render in intimate terms the epic expanse of the war and its world-shattering consequences. Billy’s investigations never repeat themselves, and each book provides a new lens for understanding the war and the multitudes of people affected in so many different ways. A librarian by trade, Benn’s prose is distinguished not only by its finely honed literary quality but also its expertly researched details. The “Author’s Note” section at the back of each volume is an eagerly awaited conclusion to each mystery, as Benn reveals the factual research that went into the story, indicating (with sometimes surprising results!) which parts were true and which were invented.
Also on-board for this rewarding series is a different but no less important collaborator: artist Daniel Cosgrove, whose beautiful designs have graced the cover of every one of Benn’s Billy Boyle books. Inspired by vintage military advertisements, Cosgrove’s covers are unmistakable and undeniably gorgeous, and just one more reason why readers will want to collect all thirteen in the series.
The propellers are spinning, and Boyle and his crew are readying for their next mission. Do your duty, pick up a book, and join the investigation. What are you waiting for?
BILLY BOYLE, the first book in the Billy Boyle Investigations, is available for $8.99 PB / $1.99 EB. PURCHASE HERE
"The first dead body I saw in Normandy was a cow, tangled in the branches of a shattered tree at a crossroads by the edge of a field, a good thirty feet off the ground. More of them lay scattered across the pasture, the thick green grass dotted with gaping holes of black, smoking earth.
A few cows were still upright. One wandered into the ditch alongside the road, trailing intestines and bellowing, her big brown eyes crazed with fear and pain …”