Billy Boyle is back in James Benn's novel "Solemn Graves"
Most authors who pen a popular mystery series have a comfortable process that involves set writing times and a proven process to develop the narrative. That's how it's been with James R. Benn over the course of 12 Billy Boyle World War II mysteries.
With "Solemn Graves," the latest Boyle title, which hits bookstores Tuesday, Benn tried a new approach — one that would probably have scared the hell out of his agent and editor had he bothered to tell them.
Benn had come up with a clever variation on Agatha Christie's "closed community" scenario. A murdered American officer is found in a French manor house being used as advanced Allied headquarters near the front lines in Normandy, shortly after the D-Day invasion. There are several compelling and richly drawn on-site characters including soldiers, spies, and residents and employees of the estate. Any could have perpetrated the killing — including a lovely but mute 20-year-old woman — and of course it's up to Boyle and his close friends/colleagues, series co-stars Big Mike and Kaz, to figure out who did it. When a second murder happens, the tension and pressure ratchet up appreciably.
"It was a fun idea," says Benn, seated in the living room of the new Essex condominium he shares with his wife, Deborah Mandel. The couple are former residents of Hadlyme and also spend part of the year in Florida. "Here I'd filled a farmhouse with interesting suspects, almost like a locked room mystery. My only problem was that, for the first time since I've been writing, I had no idea who did it."
Benn grins happily, shrugs and explains, "You've gotta keep it interesting to yourself. So my brain said, 'OK, Jim, I'm not going to tell you who did it.'"
The new strategy served as a sort of liberating impetus that had an interesting effect once Benn sat down to write. For one thing, he'd always used opening chapters in an introductory, scene-setting fashion where characters and historical context are established. Slowly but enticingly, the reader is drawn into the story.
With "Solemn Graves," though, Benn accelerates the action in a way more associated with thrillers. En route to the main crime scene, Boyle and Big Mike witness the jarring field execution of French civilians stealing from the bodies American soldiers killed in an accident. Then, arriving at the manor, Boyle is led into a comfortable drawing room — where the walls are sprayed with arterial blood from the slit throat of the dead officer.
"If I was going to play with my method and alter my technique," Benn says, "I thought I might as well use faster pacing and thrust the reader right into the action. I might not have known who did it, but I liked that feeling and tension. It was exhilarating because I felt like I was chasing the story downhill."
Benn celebrates the publication of "Solemn Graves" with an appearance today in Phoenix at the Ian Rankin Convention, then heads back to Connecticut for a signing event Tuesday in Madison at R.J. Julia's. On Sept. 13, he'll speak about "Solemn Graves" at the Essex Library.
In addition to entering the writing process without knowing his killer, "Solemn Graves" is also distinct in Benn's canon because of a wellspring of plot ideas. In addition to the central murder mystery, Benn had discovered, through recently declassified information, an Allied tactic called the Ghost Army — an 1,100-troop outfit that utilized inflatable tanks and equipment, sound trucks, scripted fictional radio transmissions and other deceptive ruses to create the illusion of attacks or a strong military presence that wasn't real.
"I find that just an incredible and fascinating idea," Benn says. "I knew immediately I wanted to write about it. Unfortunately, the deeper I got into the story, the more the Ghost Army wasn't as prevalent as I'd hoped. It happens that way sometimes."
That was also the case with a plot tangent involving the "épuration sauvage" or wild purge in which post-D-Day vigilantes targeted random citizens as Nazi sympathizers, and the accused — frequently women who were members of the Resistence — were humiliated, bullied and, as the movement gained a vicious momentum, often killed. Benn weaves this sickening wave into the story, though he also acknowledges that, as with the Ghost Army, the Wild Purge could easily support its own book.
"The whole notion of (the Wild Purge) was astonishing to me," Benn says. "It was literally a period of no law and, as the front moved, these lawless enclaves developed overnight and just ran wild. Thousands were murdered in a period of a few weeks."
Writers know that stories and novels take on their own momentums and narrative trails. Ultimately, while the Ghost Army and the Wild Purge bring enriching and amazing and under-explored historical detail to "Solemn Graves," Boyle's investigation followed its own thread.
This is one of Benn's best books, and Boyle, Big Mike and Kaz become more complex and endearing than ever. But they've also changed significantly. Boyle, in particular, is a darker hero, one who's exhausted and whose optimism has dimmed based on what he's seen and experienced. It's another touching and skillfully realized aspect of the series' overall story arc.
"These guys have been in a brutal war for four years," Benn says. "It has to have an effect. There is a price for what they've been through. They've been physically and emotionally beaten up."
And while Benn would never suggest that, as a novelist, the experience of chronicling these characters and stories is remotely like real life, the research and the immersion do have a genuine effect on him as well.
"I spend a lot of my time and work thinking about the sacrifices that our military has made on our behalf," Benn says. "It's beyond humbling." He pauses. "Sometimes, I wonder about it all in the shadow of today's political climate. I'm writing about the defeat of the Nazis 70 years ago — and now we have Nazi banners in our own streets."
In general, though, life is good. Benn and Mandel take walks and travel and enjoy the luxury of splitting time between New England and Florida. They're both looking forward to the foliage season before heading south.
Benn also interacts with readers who, he says, have plenty of ideas about adventures Billy Boyle can undertake.
"They have some great ideas and want to send Billy to some interesting places," Benn laughs, "though a lot of the suggestions seems to take place after war. The reality is, having Billy in World War II is the series. That's my wheelhouse. At this point, to keep things in chronological order, Billy's solving a crime every two weeks or so. We're got a way's to go yet."
A James Benn Field Manual
1. Benn graduated from UConn and has a masters in library science from Southern Connecticut State University. His wife, Deborah Mandel, is a psychotherapist. They have two sons and seven grandchildren.
2. Before retiring to write full-time in 2011, Benn worked at the Connecticut State Library and with the U.S. Nation Commission on Libraries and Information Science. He's also published two non-Billy Boyle novels, "On Desperate Ground" and "Souvenir."
3. You can't take the library out of the librarian. Benn remains fascinated by them and says the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale is the most impressive he's seen: "It's a granite building, but the collection is housed in a glass-enclosed tower inside. In case of fire, there's a system to suck the oxygen out of the tower to protect the rare books. Slow humans be damned."
2. The five best war novels Benn's ever read: "Cold Mountain" by Charles Frazier; "The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien; "Matterhorn" by Karl Marlantes; "The Eagle Has Landed" by Jack Higgins; and "Lastly and most importantly, 'Johnny Got His Gun' by Dalton Trumbo, which taught me the power of the interior voice."
3. If he could meet any historical figure from World War II — aside from the main players — Benn says, "Perhaps because I'm reading so much about it right now, I'd like to talk with any of the survivors of the Ravensbrück concentration camp, where the Nazis sent women prisoners exclusively. Many of the female spies sent by the British who were captured ended up there, as well as members of the French Resistance. Their stories of endurance are formidable and daunting."
4. Traveling extensively in Europe as research for the Boyle novels, Benn says he was most moved by Berlin. "The history is so thick you can slice it with a knife," he says. "Walking in the city and crossing the white line that marks where the Wall once stood and visiting the German Resistance Memorial and the Topography of Terror Museum made so much of what I write about much more immediate."
5. If Boyle could team up with any other fictional detective, Benn says, "In my dreams, it would be Bernie Gunther, the sardonic Berlin detective created by the late Philip Kerr. Bernie would definitely outsmart Billy, but it's a fun fantasy."
If you go
Who: Author James R. Benn
What: Discusses and signs copies of "Solemn Graves," the 13th Billy Boyle World War II mystery
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday, R.J. Julia Bookseller, 768 Boston Post Road, Madison
How much: Free
For more information: (203) 245-3959