Latest Billy Boyle World War II mystery out from James Benn

James Benn (Deborah Mandel)
James Benn (Deborah Mandel)

Winston Churchill — known for a few things during his time on Earth — wrote a six-volume, personally-flavored history of World War II principally cited as the main reason he was awarded the 1953 Nobel Prize in Literature.

It's worth wondering, though: Does former Hadlyme author James Benn, now living in Essex, know more about that conflict than even Churchill? Hmm. Over the course of 12 novels starring U.S. military detective Billy Boyle and set in all sorts of locales and situations during World War II, Benn has done a tremendous amount of research. Too, part of Benn's mission is to integrate Boyle, along with his sidekick and series costar Piotr "Kaz" Kazimierz, a lieutenant in the Polish Army, into situations that focus on lesser known aspects of the war.

Consider the hydra-headed complexities at the heart of "The Devouring," the latest Boyle novel, which hits bookstores Tuesday. En route to Switzerland to help out the OSS, Boyle and Kaz are in a plane shot down by Germans. The pilot is killed and, making their way on foot, they're helped out by Anton Lashi, a Sinti whose family has been killed by Nazis and who's an estimably acomplished and determined vigilante.

Once in Switzerland, the trio learn they're to help out real-life Allen Foster Dulles and the OSS on Operation Safehaven — a plan to prevent German assets in Swiss banks from being used for post-war Nazi resurgence. Indeed, the "neutral" Swiss are heavily involved in money — or gold — laundering to the benefit of the Nazis. A banking official has been murdered, and another murder soon thereafter increases the danger and the complexity. The more Boyle, Kaz and Lashi learn — with plenty of narrow escapes along the way — the more sinister the ties between Switzerland and Germany become. This includes disturbing connections to ITT and even folks associated with the Red Cross. Part whodunit, part MacGuffin, part spy novel and a beautifully and poignantly written war story, "The Devouring" is a multi-layered and artfully synthesized novel.

In any case, whether a fan of superb literary mysteries or historical/military fiction, the Billy Boyle novels have become reliable and always entertaining and informative adventures. Benn will discuss and signs copies of "The Devouring" Tuesday at the Savoy Bookshop & Cafe in Westerly. It's the first stop on a tour that will include events September 14 at the R.J. Julia Bookstore at Wesleyan College in Middletown and September 15 at the original R.J. Julia Bookstore in Madison.

Earlier this week, Benn answered questions about the Boyle series and "The Devouring."

Q. After all this time and such a wide array of story lines and locales, has researching and writing the Billy Boyle canon indeed made you an authority on World War II?

A. I am perhaps now aware of how much I do not know about the war. I thought I was well-versed when I began this journey, but as I uncover more of these little-known episodes, I realize there has to be much more in that same vein. If the exploration of Jewish refugees in France led me to this complex story of Swiss complicity, consider how many other similar events there are — glossed over or forgotten by history?

Q. Speaking of the situation with Jewish refugees in France, that was indeed the original idea for "The Devouring," right?

A. Yes. When I was researching "The Blue Madonna," I came across a one-sentence description about how resisters in France tried to smuggle Jewish children into Switzerland — and the Swiss didn't want them and were relentless in hunting them down. I wanted to tell that story, but it was all over by 1943 and I had to fit the novel into Billy's timeline, in this case 1944 just after D-Day. I still think that would make a great young adult book because there were so many teens and people in their early 20s creating this whole community together. And it mirrors our current political situation with deporting refugees and the Dreamers. It's tremendously sad.

Q. You ended up with plenty of material, The intertwining plotlines of "The Devouring" are pretty complex and detailed. It almost seemed like there was enough great material for two or even three novels. Did you ever feel like it was twirling out of control or at least that the research alone was throwing you off your rhythm?

A. This was a case where, yes, there was so much material that the only thing I could do was put the story in order and just tell it. We knew bits and pieces about the connection between the Nazis and the Swiss, and I just started looking into it. In 1997, a Swiss security guard at a bank found old (war-time) ledgers, to be shredded, that detailed transactions involving gold looted from conquered nations, torn from the teeth of concentration camp victims, from jewerly, and so on — and Swiss banks colluded with Nazis to launder those assets to allow Germany to buy war materials on the international market.

After the war, the Swiss didn't want to release the money; how much of that was anti-Semitic or just greedy is hard to say. But the whole legend of Swiss neutrality is so much horseshit.

And the connections between big business — including International Telephone and Telegraph (an American company founded by Sosthenes Behn) and (German aircraft manufacturer) Focke-Wulf is also a bizarre part of the story. 

Q. Over the course of the series, Billy has matured and evolved as a protagonist, and the war has had a profound effect on him. At the same time, in the tradition of Robert Parker's Spenser and Hawk or James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcel, Kaz has become an incredibly complex co-star worthy of equal billing. Was it the idea all along to elevate Kaz's status to co-headliner?

A. Actually, Kaz was supposed to die in the first book. I wanted his death to serve as a wakeup call to Billy because he takes things personally and acts on them — as opposed to having a bigger global perspective. Readers might remember that Daphne (the love of Kaz's life) died in that first book; originally, she was supposed to live, and we'd lose Kaz.

But I hadn't planned that this would be a series, and when the book did fairly well and the opportunity to write more became a reality, I had to think about things. The truth is, a woman in those times and in those circumstances was ill-suited to the role of a sidekick. So many readers were really angry with me for killing Daphne. Looking back, I think I gave her character a lot of heart and soul — maybe subconsciously — and it resonated. Fortunately, Kaz has proven to be pretty popular on his own.

Q. With all of these amazing elements going on, you had to keep in mind that you're still writing a Billy Boyle mystery. How did you keep it all balanced?

A. In terms of pure plot, I try to come up with something a little different every time. I don't want readers to think the same mystery is being solved in each book, just with a different setting. And I came up with the idea of a MacGuffin (a searched-for object whose value isn't revealed until the end of the story). I'd never written a traditional MacGuffin, and so I came up with the idea of this mysterious document they're looking for. There was so much dense material I needed something to cut through and streamline the story so Billy could run around meaningfully and not just in a travelogue.

 

If you go

Who: James Benn

What: Discusses and signs copies of "The Devouring," the 12th in his series of Billy Boyle World War II mysteries

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Savoy Bookshop & Cafe, 10 Canal St., Westerly

How much: Free, books available for purchase

For more information: (401) 213-3901, jamesrbenn.com, banksquarebooks.com

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