The best mystery series are rarely thought of as "literary" in some Faulknerian or Toni Morrison sense -- although, if a gifted author presents an ongoing, real-time succession of stories, readers might well experience narrative and character development in profound ways that offer far greater detail and depth than might be expected in a one-off novel.
This is certainly true in James R. Benn's vastly entertaining, decidedly literary Billy Boyle World War II mysteries. The just-out "When Hell Struck Twelve" is the 14th book in the series, which stars Boyle, a U.S. Army detective who, along with his best friend and Polish compatriot Lieutenant "Kaz" Kazimierz, works for the 12th Army Group's Special Investigations outfit.
In "When Hell Struck Twelve," it's August 1944, and Billy and Kaz are in pursuit of a French traitor, Atlantik, who has stolen plans detailing an assault that will hopefully result in the Allied liberation of German-occupied Paris. The trick, though, is that the plans are fake -- a ploy to misdirect the Germans while the Allies completely bypass Paris in a direct charge to the German border. Billy and Kaz must make convincing pursuit without actually catching the traitor, which becomes increasingly painful to do as per the trail of dead in Atlantik's wake.
As a plot, it's captivating, clever and full of historical revelations, action and intrigue about a crucial point in World War II. And Benn writes with a brutal and evocative skill about the grim and bloody reality of a situation and environment reflecting the cumulative cost of war as it has played out over half a decade.
But in spite of the graphic realities in the novel, the most chilling aspects may be the empathetically wrought depictions of the emotional, physical and mental toll exacted on Kaz and Billy -- as well popular support characters Big Mike and Diana Seaton, the latter of whom is Boyle's under-deep-cover beloved.
Benn, a friendly and engaging speaker -- the sort you wish had taught WW II history at your college -- will read from and sign copies of "When Hell Struck Twelve" Saturday afternoon at the Lyme Public Library. Last week, by phone from his home in Essex, Benn talked about the series and his characters.
Q: Early in the book, Billy and Kaz cross the Falaise Gap with a sense of increasing horror. It's the location "Falaise Pocket Battle" where Polish forces had just heroically held off surging Nazis for three critical days on Hill 262, and the writing is incredibly sad and brutal -- and provides indelible context in the fashion of the opening of "Saving Private Ryan." But was this also a way to suggest Billy and Kaz are reaching a cumulative breaking point?
A: The intensity of that scene announces to the reader that this is the path Billy and Kaz are going down by this point in the series. Things had slowed somewhat for a while, but it doesn't go away and it seems it's never over. I'd known about that stand by the free Poles, and Kaz IS Polish. I had to find a way to get him on that hill because the Poles had been screwed over in so many ways. It affects Billy and Kaz greatly not just in terms of the incredible loss of life, but in a personal fashion.
You know, the free Poles were not even allowed to march at the British Victory Parade. Even after the war, Brits didn't want Poles in their country; sixty-six percent of the Poles repatriated to Poland, and for reasons like this, I felt it was so very important to Kaz, and I really wanted them to be there and see the devastation. (Editor's note: It was determined at the Yalta Conference in 1945 that Poland would lose territory to the Soviet Union, and Britain recognized the new communist government in Poland rather than the freedom fighters who'd been so valuable to the Allied cause.)
Q: The end of "When Hell" is very much a book suffused in melancholy -- as opposed to the "crisis-averted/crime-solved" conclusion associated with a lot of crime novels. Was that the intention?
A: Melancholy is very much the intention. Over the course of the war and the series, there are wounds of all types that have been endured by Kaz and Billy and all of them. It's just too unrealistic that they would have experienced all this and somehow be fine. I wanted to explore that through a different way of looking at the liberation.
Q: Is it OK to assure readers that indeed there IS a next Billy Boyle mystery?
A: (He laughs.) Yes, the next one, "The Red Horse," is already finished, and it's the second part of what is, with "When Hell Struck Twelve," a two-volume work. It can be told that Billy and Kaz are taken to a secret military hospital in Britain -- a place for agents ostensibly wounded or on the mend but in fact knew or had seen too much to be released. They were told they were there to heal and for further training but were in fact in a sort of prison. This is based on an actual secret facility called Inverlair Lodge in Scotland.
Q: One of the fun things about the series is the sequence of cameos by actual historical figures. In this novel, two of the biggest would be General Patton and Ernest Hemingway. Researching their respective "parts," what did you learn?
A: Patton was a real social climber and sycophant to Eisenhower to his face -- but belittled him behind his back. As for Hemingway, what a colossal egoist. What a jerk. I truly -- I REALLY admire his early works, and his advice about writing, the Iceberg Theory, where if you know enough about your subject matter and are true to it, the truth will come out, was invaluable to me. But he degenerated after that; he was an alcoholic and horrible to his wives and the depiction in the novel is accurate.
Q: Currently in the U.S., we're embroiled in a horrible opioid and methamphetamine epidemic. This should resonate with readers because one of the big themes of "When Hell Struck Twelve" concerns widespread and prescribed use of amphetamines by the Germans as a military strategy. Talk about that.
A: I read an incredible book called "Blitzed" about drugs in the Third Reich by (German journalist) Norman Ohler. In it, he describes drug abuse by Hitler himself and the doctor behind it, as well as the idea that sleep is the enemy of the soldier. It worked well within its intended purpose; there were 35 million doses administered alone in France, and it worked for days -- until it didn't. There was very little thought given to the downside or withdrawal and the after-effects of addiction. As we well know now, here, it's a devastating situation.
Q: Have you changed how you write the characters of Billy and Kaz over the course of the series? Has their overall health and hardship become more of a priority than maybe at the first, when solving the crime was the idea?
A: In a nutshell, I see two kinds of protagonists in fiction. The first kind moves through the world and changes the world, and emerges intact and unscathed.
The second kind moves through the world and is changed by the world, emerging wounded and as a different person.
I probably came to this realization slowly, at least in its fully formed sense. But I knew from the beginning I didn't want this series to be all about derring-do and sanitized, chisel-jawed heroes. I wanted Billy and company to bear the emotional burdens of what they -- and all those they stand for -- actually endured.
This article is written by Rick Koster from The Day, New London, Conn. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.