Benn, James R. Rag and Bone.

NY: Soho Press, 2010.

The newly promoted 1st Lieut. Billy Boyle, special low-profile criminal investigator on the staff of his distant cousin, General Eisenhower, gets assigned to cases that are much different from those he would have drawn as a young police detective back in South Boston. This is his fifth case and it’s January 1944, only a few weeks since the end of his adventures in Northern Ireland.

He’s enjoying a brief holiday on the Bay of Naples with his girl, who works for the SOE and is about to go undercover behind German lines, when all political hell breaks loose in London and “Uncle Ike” packs him off back there to handle things. (Eisenhower has just been named Supreme Allied Commander, pending the invasion of the Continent, and he’s about to return to London himself.) A short while before, word had come out from Poland that the bodies of more than forty thousand Polish officers, cadets, and other professionals had been discovered in the Katyn Forest by the occupying Germans. They’ve brought in the Red Cross, who blamed the massacre on the Soviets, who had taken over the eastern half of Poland. Stalin, of course, denies it, and blames the murders on the Nazis — but a few witnesses have survived with first-hand accounts and the Polish government-in-exile, based in London, is demanding justice, even if it upsets the war effort.

But of more immediate concern to Billy is the murder in London of a Russian diplomat (actually secret police), who was bound and shot in the head, Katyn fashion, and the Soviet embassy wants action. It doesn’t help that Billy’s best friend and co-investigator, Lieut. Piotr Kazimierz, an exiled Polish officer (and baron), appears to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. The investigation takes Billy from the Underground shelters in Liverpool Street, the haunt of one of London’s more vicious gangsters, to the meeting rooms of MI-5 inhabited by movers and shakers like Kim Philby. He’s assisted this time by Big Mike Miecznikowski, a Detroit cop and former MP corporal whom he had met on an earlier case (and a “character” in several senses). Big Mike always carries his police badge on him and it’s amazingly useful in gaining favors from the local constabulary, wherever he might find himself.

It’s a very complicated plot, involving several secret services, the black market, greed and informers on all sides, Luftwaffe bombing raids, a shell-shocked young Polish soldier, international political pressure, and sixty crates of canned peaches. But the author has learned his trade now and both the story and the characters are entirely convincing — and I have to say I didn’t figure out whodunit (and why) until nearly the end. And Billy himself is developing into a much more devious person in pursuit of his goals than when he first started.

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