Benn, James R. Billy Boyle.

NY: Soho Press, 2006.

It’s always nice to discover a successful new mystery novelist, especially when the setting is also unusual. The title character here is a Boston Irish cop who is in his early twenties when the U.S. is swept into the War by the attack at Pearl Harbor, having just made detective a few days before.

He comes from a family of cops and his father and uncle are veterans of the First World War. Being thoroughly Irish, they don’t think Billy has any business being involved in a war against Germany, just to help the British. But they all look after each other and so a local politician is prevailed upon to pull some strings and get Billy into OCS, followed by assignment to his cousin, Dwight Eisenhower, at the War Department. (This part of the set-up, which posits his mother’s connection to the Doud family, frankly stretches credulity. The Douds were Anglo-German Midwesterners, having originated in New York State; there were no Irish and no Bostonians that I’ve ever heard of, and it’s a family I know a little something about.) Billy passed the detective’s exams by cheating, with help from his family, but there’s no way he can cheat his way through OCS and he barely makes it through — and then discovers his orders are to report immediately to Eisenhower at U.S. Army HQ in London. “Uncle Ike” has decided he needs a criminal detective on his staff to handle investigations into such things as the black market; he wants any rotten apples in the American military to be removed quietly so as to preserve good relations with the British. So the newly minted Lieut. William Boyle finds himself at the Dorchester Hotel, a few blocks from Eisenhower’s offices at Grosvenor Square. And then he’s sent out almost immediately as one of a group of observers to the Norwegian Government-in-Exile at Beardsley Hall, together with a gorgeous WREN officer and the latter’s boyfriend, a young Polish count working as a translator — but what the party is really doing is searching for a German spy who might have obtained the plans for the prospective Allied invasion of Norway. And then one of King Haakon’s senior advisors is defenestrated and Billy, being on the scene, takes over the investigation. Nor will it be the only murder he has to deal with.

Now, the mystery plot itself is pretty well-handled but there are some problems with the way Benn lays out the rest of the story. Billy, even though he has only a high school education and has never been out of Massachusetts before, comes across as amazingly ignorant and naïve. Of course, we, the readers, know that Ike and his people want word of the Norwegian invasion to leak out — it’s all a scam directed at the Germans, to force them to tie up a number of divisions away from France (and it worked) — but, naturally, neither Billy nor anyone else knows anything about that. And he seems never to question the fact that he’s been let in on extremely Top Secret information within hours of getting off the plane. Even when he runs across other examples of deliberately lax security — which he does, in fact, recognize and even remarks on — he never thinks to report his concerns to his superiors. Nor does he seem to know or care anything about military courtesy and so on, when that’s practically the first thing they pound into you in officer training. He regards himself as just a “dumb Mick,” not to mention knowing absolutely nothing about Norway. But then he comes out with some very astute and sophisticated remarks, such as a passing comment about “every Tom, Dick, and Lars,” that are difficult to reconcile with his earlier self-assessment.

These are relatively minor points, however, and it’s not surprising (or uncommon) to come across them in a first novel. The writing and plotting are both generally quite strong, though, and the characters (those who survived this first book) are multi-dimensional and involving, and the subsequent books in the series are on my to-read list.


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