The Billy Boyle Investigations Deliver World War II Mystery at Its Finest

Military fiction meets mystery in James R. Benn’s unforgettable Billy Boyle WWII novels. In this critically acclaimed series—now up to fourteen books with 2019’s When Hell Struck Twelve—Benn has created a pitch-perfect blend of historical depth and pulse-pounding narrative driven by carefully crafted mysteries. Think Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers meets Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series. From battlefronts to back alleys, military treason to personal revenge, this is World War II fiction 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 killed 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 compelling lead for a mystery series is that his job 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.

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 and potential suspect Jack Kennedy in The White Ghost (2015) when he’s sent to investigate the murder of a native coastwatcher on the island of Tulagi. 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. 2018’s Solemn Graves finds Billy treading carefully in the hunt for a killer near the HQ of a top-secret Allied unit know only as the Ghost Army, whose operations are so shrouded in mystery not even nearby units know what they’re doing.

In the latest entry in the series, When Hell Struck Twelve (September 3, 2019), Billy and Lieutenant Kaz travel into the heart of Nazi-occupied Paris on a dangerous mission: Ensure a traitor to the French Resistance unwittingly carries out a high-stakes deception campaign. Their target, code-named Atlantik, is delivering Allied plans to German leaders in Paris, but the plans are decoys meant to obscure the Allied intention of bypassing Paris as they move toward the German border. Billy and Kaz must keep close enough to spur the traitor on and visible enough to ensure the Germans trust Atlantik.

Over the course of fourteen books, 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. He’s 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 the complete 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?


Read an excerpt of When Hell Struck Twelve


Start with BILLY BOYLE, the first book in the Billy Boyle Investigations.  PURCHASE HERE

A fast-paced saga set in a period when the fate of civilization still hangs in the balance.
The Wall Street Journal
I’ve read every book in James R. Benn’s series, reviewed most of them, loved all of them, and this is the best one yet.
BookPage (When Hell Struck Twelve)

James R. Benn is the author of the Billy Boyle World War II mystery series. He has been a librarian for many years. He splits his time between Essex, CT and Bradenton, FL. For more information, visit his website.

Read a Q&A with the author about Solemn Graves.

Spirited wartime storytelling.
New York Times Book Review