When he set out years ago try to write and publish novels, Hadlyme’s James R. Benn was a librarian.
His attempts at fiction, chiefly through a series of World War II-set mysteries starring military policeman Billy Boyle, have been very successful — and it’s now a happy fact to say Benn has personally contributed several more titles to the shelves of America’s libraries.
He’s also made significant fans; writers such as Lee Child and Joseph Finder have warbled the praises of the Boyle series.
As a result of his success, Benn writes full time now, though he’s proud that the launch party for the seventh Boyle adventure, “Death’s Door” (Soho, 338 pages, $25), out today, is a homecoming-style event taking place Friday in the Lyme Public Library.
Benn also celebrates at 6 p.m. tonight with an online video chat (jamesrbenn.com/events).
Over the course of the series, the frenetically-busy Boyle — a distant relative of General Dwight Eisenhower and a peacetime Boston homicide cop — has hopscotched across Europe solving a variety of Benn’s fiendishly clever crimes. These investigations take place against the expansive backdrop of war, made all the more fascinating and revealing by a cast of sensationally developing characters as well as Benn’s own ongoing curiosity and remarkable historical accuracy.
In “Death’s Door,” Boyle’s lover, the British spy Diana Seaton, has been captured by the Nazis and is being held in occupied Rome’s grim Regina Coeli Prison. When Boyle is sent to the neutral confines of the Vatican to solve the murder of an American monsignor, a possible window opens for Boyle to attempt Seaton’s rescue. But the always political Vatican is a checkerboard of pro-Allied/pro-Nazi sympathizers — and no one knows which are which.
Benn recently answered five questions about Billy Boyle and “Death’s Door.”
Q: “Death’s Door” centers around some fairly intricate plot machinations involving Vatican neutrality, the lunatic Nazi sympathizer Pietro Koch, and the brave efforts by real-life Sterling Hayden. What was the inspiration for the novel, and did research from a central premise turn up these fascinating but relatively obscure details?
A: “The idea of setting this within the Vatican came about when my agent asked for a list of book ideas to pass on to my publisher several years ago. I’m not that good about thinking ahead, so I scribbled some stuff down, one of which was Billy at the Vatican. They loved it — although I had no idea what it would be about.
“Then a couple of years ago, on a research trip for ‘A Mortal Terror,’ set at Anzio, we spent some time in Rome and visited Saint Peter’s Basilica. It has five doors, and the leftmost is opened only for funerals and is called the Door of Death. I knew right then that a body would be found at the foot of that door, and Billy would have to be smuggled in through occupied Rome. Everything flowed from that.”
Q: Regarding the appearance of Hayden (and other real life folks) over the course of the series, do you have to actually get permission from the family or an estate or whatever? It IS fiction, but still …
A: “No. Oddly enough, I would have to get permission to use fiction characters (unless in the public domain), but historical figures are okay to use. I don’t know what the law permits about how far you can stretch reality, but I tend not to. Although I’m tempted by the idea of ‘Ike — Vampire Hunter.’”
Q: One of the cool things about the Boyle series is how much the reader learns about World War II that isn’t necessarily in the history books. In this book, I learned about another real-life character, Pietro Koch — an amazing and terrifying person. In that spirit, after writing seven Boyle novels, how much have you yourself learned about the conflict when you started the series?
A: “I was stunned to learn how much I did not know, and I thought I was somewhat of an expert at the beginning of this process. So much of what I put in the books comes from researching the mechanics of how Billy will conduct his investigation — the obstacles and limitations of wartime.
“When I find a gem of a villain like Koch, I dig as deep as I can to extract as much emotional and physical momentum as possible. But those people are never the villains Billy is after; his purpose is to pursue those who take a life during wartime unnecessarily. Assuming that the battles and deaths are necessary to win the war. It offends him that anyone might be murdered when they stood a chance of surviving the warfare.”
Q: A great deal of the plot of “Death’s Door” involves how much Pope Pius XII knew about the Holocaust, what he did or didn’t do to help Jews, and whether or how much he was sympathetic to the Nazi cause. This is touchy material and in that context, how did you go about researching and refining what would happen in the book?
A: “When I began I thought the backdrop of the story would be Pius’ temerity, if not actual collusion with the Nazis. Again, I learned that this is an extraordinarily complex question. So much of our modern assumptions about Pius flow from the 1962 play ‘The Deputy.’ Files from the KGB now show that was part of a Soviet disinformation campaign.
“As is shown in the book, thousands of Jews and others on the run were hidden by the Church in Rome. Pius even played a role in some early spycraft as a go-between for anti-Nazi Germans and the British — hardly something a pro-Nazi Pope would do.
“In one of the ongoing echoes of WWII down the decades, the Yad Vashem memorial in Israel recently reworded its display about Pius and the Holocaust to acknowledge his position may have enabled ‘a considerable number of secret rescue activities to take place at different levels of the Church.’
“Billy ends up in a swirl of moral complexity, which is always fertile ground for a novelist. Once again, the easy answers turn out to be false. The truth is always complex and often hidden.”
Q: The Boyle series moves chronologically. We now find ourselves in 1944, and the war ended in 1945. Does this indicate a sooner-rather-than-later conclusion to Billy’s adventures?
A: “Careful readers may notice that the timeline of the war is moving slowly. The last two, and ‘Death’s Door,’ all take place between January, 1944, and D-Day (June 6). Next year’s book, ‘Angry Smith,’ takes place in England in late March, 1944. These books each pretty much take up where the last one lets off. So there is plenty of time; we’re not even on the Continent yet.”