James R. Benn is the creator of the “Billy Boyle” series, featuring the exploits of Boyle during World War II in Europe. A detective on the Boston Police Department when the war begins, Boyle ends up on the staff of General Eisenhower and deals with murder and mayhem in a time when sanctioned homicide is happening on a grand scale.
The series started off with Billy Boyle, which finds the eponymous hero investigating the death of n official of the Norwegian government in exile. Lee Child, who knows a fair amount about creating suspense in a novel, noted of this debut, “This book has got it all – an instant classic.” Further books in the series include The First Wave, Blood Alone, Evil for Evil, and the recently published fifth title, Rag and Bone, a book Publishers Weekly declared “stellar,” and about which the New York Times Book Review said that “scenes of London under siege are stark and poignant.”
Jim, it’s great to have you on Scene of the Crime. Your novels featuring Boyle take the reader very viscerally into the chaos of World War II. Can you talk a bit about your connection to that time and place?
I have an affinity for the past, and make trips there as often as imagination allows! My books are set in the European Theater of Operations during World War II, which for many of my generation is the land of our fathers. I grew up when that war was a recent memory, and that time has always fascinated me. I do travel to many of the locations in the books; research in England, Ireland and Italy has not been too arduous.
What things about World War II in Europe make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
Conflict. Both physical and moral. Whether in a London headquarters or a foxhole in Italy, questions of survival are always at play. The role of truth in wartime provides for endless moral conflict for Billy Boyle. Over the course of the books, he has to grow and develop emotionally as he comes to grips with the terrible mathematics of war—that some will die now so that others will live later—as taught to him by General Eisenhower, or “Uncle Ike”.
How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you?
I try always to be conscious of setting. A writing teacher once told me to “remember your characters are moving through space and time.” It sounds obvious, but I found it a revelation. Characters (and therefore readers) must be aware of their surroundings. It can be small details, such as Billy resting his hand on the surface of a wall, feeling the stone that went into the building. Is it soft, hard, cool, smooth, chalky? Or the smell from crops in the field, or newly plowed soil, depending on time of year.
How does Billy Boyle interact with his surroundings?
Billy Boyle had never traveled far from Boston before the war, and is quite reluctant about the whole idea of getting killed—especially since he and his Irish family view this as another war to save the British empire. But it does change him, as the experience of seeing the world changed so many people in the 1940s. What is remarkable is that prior to WWII, especially with the Depression in full force, travel was uncommon, and people from one region of the country might never meet people from other regions, much less travel across the globe. This sudden change, from parochial insularity to a wide exposure to different people and cultures, had a profound effect. Placing a main character in the midst of that demands that he react, grow and change in reaction to it.
Have you ever made any goofs in depicting your location or time period? Please share–the more humorous the better (we all have).
I have a cadre of supportive readers who are quick to point out errors of detail, which have all been slight. I’ve had Billy speaking his few words of French in the feminine, which I attribute to his ineptness with languages, not mine! In writing historical fiction, I think it is critical to get the facts right, so readers can trust where you are taking them, and understand when they are reading fact. For instance, if I have General Eisenhower discussing supply problems and the endemic theft all along the supply chain, I want readers to trust that the words coming out of his mouth are factual. To do that, you can’t make substantial errors. One example is a recent mystery set during WWII in which the author gave a German spy behind Allied lines an Enigma machine for decoding messages. The Germans would never have let an Enigma device out of their sight, it was far too valuable to entrust to an agent. That kind of error made me wonder about everything else the author was writing about; if he got that wrong, what else was wrong?
Of the Billy Boyle novels, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
Here the location is not physical, but the shifting moral ground that Billy encounters in Rag and Bone as he deals with the revelations concerning the Katyn Forest Massacre:
“The only thing worse than being executed and buried in the Katyn Forest was to witness the executions and burials, then be thrown into a secret police prison, where fear and memories ate away at your mind until reality and sanity decayed beyond repair. Then, to be sent back out into the world through a bureaucratic mistake, silent and withdrawn, adrift among people who wanted only to draw you out, stand you up, use you and watch you relive the nightmare visions at their bidding.
“Funny, but with all the sacrifices in this world for the greater good, I had to wonder where it had gotten to. That greater good. Just around the corner, like prosperity? Hoarded somewhere, stockpiled in a warehouse for after the war? Or had it been spent in payoffs, kickbacks, bribes, sweetheart deals, promotions for the incompetent but well connected? I don’t remember seeing any greater good in Sicily, at Salerno, or along the Volturno River. Just death, SNAFUs and suffering.
“All this ran through my head as I stood at attention in front of Colonel Harding’s desk the next morning, Kaz and Big Mike a step behind me. I kept my mouth shut, which I had learned the hard way was the best defense when Harding had that look: Lips compressed, jaw muscles clenched, the vein above his temple throbbing. It was like waiting for a hand grenade to go off.”
Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?
I have been greatly influence by the writings of Paul Fussell, cultural and literary historian, and combat veteran. I think his works Wartime and The Great War and Modern Memory, are superb examples of assessing the impact of war on humans. Much of Billy’s worldview on the army, chickenshit, senior officers and the immense burden placed on the fighting man comes from Fussell and his writings.
What’s next for your protagonist?
In 2011, Billy will journey to the Anzio Beachhead in Italy, to pursue an unknown psychopath who is killing officers, starting with a lieutenant and working his way up to a general. Known as Red Heart, he leaves a playing card on each body, starting with a ten of hearts for the lowly lieutenant, working his way through a royal flush. The tentative title is Mortal Terror.
I was intrigued by the idea of a psychopath in combat. One army doctor in 1945 said that after enough time in combat, 98% of all GIs would suffer from combat fatigue; the remaining 2% would be psychopaths.
Jim, thanks again for taking the time to stop by Scene of the Crime.
For more information on the works of James R. Benn, visit his homepage.