Written by Tom Nolan
One of the first people to see a copy of the proposed cover-art for Billy Boyle (2006), the initial book in James R. Benn’s historically accurate mystery-adventure series about a Boston cop-turned-GI caught up in World War II intrigue, was a longtime librarian in Hadlyme, Connecticut. And a certain detail in the prototype jacket’s lower left-hand corner made the librarian shiver. A burning car identified in the book as an English Riley Imp circa 1935 (a sports car in which one of the novel’s sympathetic characters dies in a saboteur’s explosion) was here the spitting image of quite a different vehicle: “I swear to God,” said the librarian, who was also the book’s author, “it was a 1960 Corvette.”
Fortunately, author-librarian Benn got the error corrected before publication. And the eye-catching covers of the Billy Boyle books (six so far, including A Mortal Terror released this fall)—illustrations striking a fine balance between heroic realism and Art Deco nostalgia—have proven a real draw for readers of this critically hailed series.
Each volume explores a true but little-known aspect of World War II: Billy Boyle draws on the smuggling of eight tons of gold bullion for safekeeping from Norway to the US and Canada; The First Wave involves the introduction of penicillin to battlefield hospitals in North Africa; Blood Alone invokes the use of American organized crime figures in the Allied invasion of Sicily; and Evil for Evil takes off from documented contacts between the Irish Republican Army and the German intelligence service.
Obviously, Jim Benn’s skills as a librarian are of great help in writing his fact-based thrillers. But despite Benn’s having worked as a part-time newspaper reporter during college (“At least it helped me learn how to type fast”), it was decades before he steeled himself for his plunge into creative writing.
“It was on my fiftieth birthday that I had one of those epiphanies,” says Benn, now 59. “I had been thinking about writing for about thirty years—and if I waited another thirty years, I’d be too old and decrepit to do anything about it; so I had better get cracking.” Within a few days, he sat down and began his first book.
A mystery novel was always what Benn imagined creating; TV’s Masterpiece Theatre dramatizations of the Lord Peter Wimsey books, starring Ian Carmichael, had first hooked him on the genre. And it was a given that World War II would be the setting, the war having been one of his main interests since a Connecticut childhood rich with tales of his own and other fathers’ military service. “The question in the neighborhood was always, ‘What did your dad do in the war?’ It was just something I grew up with. I remember as a young child in our small town library, when I first got the privilege of going into the adult stacks—it was like a rite of passage, when they allowed you to have your adult card—and finding Guadalcanal Diary. I can still literally see the book on the shelf. I don’t know if it was because it was my father’s generation, or just the scope and the power of those stories, but they grabbed me early on.”
As a template for his first fiction narrative, Desperate Ground (“my learner book”), Benn used a third-person approach favored by Jack Higgins, an author he’d read a lot of. “It was so intimidating to me, the notion of actually thinking of a plot, and carrying through for the length of a novel. I was drowning in an ocean, and looking for something to cling to and I just thought of that structure: the multiple points of view, and how you need to bring them all together at the end.”
Benn’s Desperate Ground was published by a new house that soon went under, but it gave Benn the confidence to try a second, more original book. And it gave him a heroic protagonist in the form of the Irish-American Billy Boyle, who first appeared as a secondary character in Desperate Ground. “I thought, ‘This guy is interesting; maybe I could do more with him.’”
The new work, with Boyle front and center, would be narrated by its hero. But while the author had plot ideas, the necessary first-person voice proved daunting. “I had decided that I just couldn’t do it,” he says. “And then, to tell you the truth, the oddest thing happened. I remember sitting at the computer, staring at the screen and—this is going to sound weird, but—even though I hadn’t planned on it, those first words popped out: ‘I wanted to die.’ I was stunned. All of a sudden, it was as if his voice had just taken hold of me. So I said, ‘Well, let’s go with it, and see.’”
Now, after six books, Benn says he enjoys channeling Boyle’s voice, which has come to seem like second nature. “He gets to be my wise-guy alter ego, who can say whatever he thinks and always has the snappy remark ready.”
Billy Boyle enters World War II from an oblique angle: on assignment to the staff of a general married to his mother’s cousin. But Dwight D. Eisenhower loses no time taking advantage of his “nephew” Billy’s special abilities, and what was supposed to have been an easy wartime berth turns into a cavalcade of exotic adventures. Readers follow Billy from London to all sorts of unexpected locales. But it’s the journeys Boyle takes within his own mind and heart that are of greater import, Benn says.
“The thing that interests me about this is the growth of the character. In the first book he emerged as a kind of stereotypical brash young Yank and I knew that that couldn’t be sustained. I didn’t want this to turn into a sort of Hogan’s Heroes of mysteries because he’s involved in a war. At some points, he’s up close in the shooting war; other points, he’s back from that, but it’s always affecting him. What I’m really trying to track over the course of the series is what’s the emotional affect on Billy, and how that relates to the people he cares about: his family, and the newfound friends he’s making. Also, the whole idea of taking somebody who’s really anti-British—and of course he has to fall in love with a British lady—and having him confront his own biases in life and his own worldview, is something that interests me as well.
“And in every situation that I’ll bring him into, it’s the same thing on a larger front. He goes to Ireland, and has to deal with working for the British. He goes into Sicily and has to deal with who he is, and rediscover himself. So the emotional content is what interests me as much, if not more, than the actual history itself.”
But it’s the historical aspects that most intrigue readers who range from the “greatest generation” to teenagers. “I’ve had emails from high school students,” Benn says, “who say, ‘I had to read a book and I liked your cover. Now I love the series, and when’s the next book coming out?’ And that’s gratifying. The younger the reader, the happier I am that somebody’s learning about things that they just didn’t know.
“Then there are a lot of older folks. I had one email from a woman who had taken her mother on a trip to England to visit the grave of her mother’s first husband, who died in the war. This was when Billy Boyle had just come out; and she said, ‘We brought it with us, because we’re both mystery fans. It really gave a sense of what it was like for a young man to be in England at that time.’ And that was very gratifying, because that’s another thing I try to do: to be as conscious as possible of not writing from the point of view of somebody looking back and knowing how things came out, but to try to keep that sense of the newness of it, the ‘great adventure’ part of it for all these young men and women who grew up in the 1930s and never thought they would leave their hometown, much less their state or their country.”
Benn also attracts readers who are meticulous in their attention to detail. “They’re very supportive,” he says. “But people are very quick to point out where I’ve made a factual error. So I try to keep those as minimal as possible.” He spends much time researching each of his novels: consulting primary and secondary source material, conferring with experts, and traveling to many of the sites described in his fiction, including London and Sicily. “Actually being there is an immense help. You can write with so much more authority about subjects in much smaller detail when you’ve actually walked the ground.”
What with research, writing a novel a year, and the full-time library position he still holds, James R. Benn doesn’t have much time for anything these days besides work. Happily, his wife, a psychotherapist, is supportive of his activities, he says. “My wife helped me edit the first book, and read it a million times. She got interested in writing and editing and ended up taking a graduate course in editing at Wesleyan University, and now she’s working on her own [nonfiction] book as well. So, at least I have a companion who’s no longer saying, ‘Why don’t we go to the beach this weekend?’”
Unless it’s the beach at Normandy.
Historical photos, from top: courtesy US Coast Guard Museum and US Air Force
A JAMES R. BENN READING LIST
Tom Nolan is the author of Ross Macdonald: A Biography (Scribner) and editor of Ross Macdonald’s The Archer Files: The Complete Short Stories of Lew Archer, Private Investigator (Crippen & Landru).
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Fall Issue #111.