Benn, James R. Blood Alone.

NY: Soho Press, 2009.

Billy Boyle is a young Boston Irish cop from a family of cops, and he’s just made detective (with a lot of family help) when Pearl Harbor brings America into the war. More favors are called in to get him a commission, on the theory that a nice comfortable job in Washington on Eisenhower’s staff (of whom he’s supposedly a shirt-tail cousin) will keep him safe. Of course, Lieut. Boyle quickly ends up in the thick of things as Uncle Ike’s personal investigator, with a certain amount of undercover work on the side. That’s the setup, and while the narrative of the first novel, Billy Boyle — which was also the author’s first novel ever — was a bit shaky in places, it was still pretty good.

And Benn certainly knows his recent history. The second book, The First Wave, which had Billy landing in North Africa before even the first shipload of troops — not at all what his family back home had in mind — was a considerable improvement. Benn is a quick learner.

This third adventure has Billy waking up in an aid station just off the beach in Sicily, being bandaged and having lost his memory completely. (The notion of absolute and complete amnesia, where you don’t even know your own name, is an old, old literary trope, but while Benn has a doctor explain it all in reasonably believable fashion, I’m still not convinced. Anyway.) Without going into spoiling detail, the centerpiece of the plot is the somewhat bizarre (but true) attempt by Lucky Luciano, Vito Genovese, and other members of the American mafia to bend Allied strategic needs in Sicily to their own ends by offering to help out. Billy is part of the team that’s trying to make that happen, and then becomes the key figure, and the author (via Billy’s explanations to Don Calo, up in the hills) makes it clear just why the gamble was worth it. The mystery this time involves the possible theft of a large quantity of occupation scrip that has been brought ashore, but it might be more complicated than that. This part of the story is well-handled, too. But more than in the first two books, it’s the war itself that becomes a main character, together with the island of Sicily. The fact that Benn is learning his trade at a rapid pace is shown by the character of Doctor Sciafani, a non-mafia Sicilian who helps Billy do what he has to do but who has his own agenda; he’s painted in multiple dimensions and is very convincing indeed. And also by Billy’s growing maturity and his increasing understanding of what war is really about and just what his place in it has to be. As I say, the first book was okay, and the second was much better, . . . but this third outing is head and shoulders above both of them. I’ve definitely become a fan.


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