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A Mortal Terror (A Billy Boyle WWII Mystery) Hardcover – September 13, 2011
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"Neverworld Wake" by Marisha Pessl
Read the absorbing new psychological suspense thriller from acclaimed New York Times bestselling author Marisha Pessl. Pre-order today
Author One-on-One: James R. Benn and Hank Phillippi Ryan
Hank Phillippi Ryan: Quick! Elevator pitch. What's your new book about?
James R. Benn: The sacrifices that loyalty demands. For Billy, it’s personal: his kid brother experiences war as an infantry replacement, and he has to deal with his natural protective instinct. For other characters, the sacrifices are life, limb, and spirit as GIs who have been in battle for months are thrown into the ill-conceived Anzio invasion, while a murderer stalks American officers.
Two officers from troops stationed near Naples, Italy, have been found dead. The first was a lieutenant, found behind a supply tent with his neck snapped. The body of a captain, strangled on the same night, was left in an elegant garden. One frightening fact links the murders: each body was discovered with a single playing card. The ten of hearts with the lieutenant; the jack of hearts with the captain.
Ryan: Oh, tell me more!
Benn: The fear among officers at headquarters is that a crazed killer is working on a royal flush, with a general targeted as the ace of hearts. Billy is sent to stop the murders before they go any further and interfere with the upcoming invasion south of Rome. But he has more to worry about; his kid brother Danny has been drafted to the platoon Billy is investigating. While Billy knows his brother wants to prove himself, he's also well aware that the lifespan of a front-line infantry replacement is measured in days or even hours of combat. With the added pressure of a murderer lurking nearby, Billy has to find a way to protect Danny's life, a daunting prospect on the battleground of the Anzio Beachhead.
Ryan: So what about Billy Boyle? Where did you first "meet" him? How did you come to know him? What about him endears him to you?
Benn: I had a hint of Billy in 1972 when I watched The Godfather. In the opening wedding scene, which takes place in 1945, Michael is in his Marine uniform, a highly decorated veteran, and he’s practically ignored. The Corleone family didn’t value service to country, only family, and I wondered, what would it have been like if Sonny was the one who had to go into the service? I promptly did nothing with that idea for thirty years. When I was ready, it was the Boston Irish, not Sicilians, who gave birth to Billy. He arrived one day, fully formed and named, with a complete backstory. Instead of the Mafia, his family is organized around the Irish Republican Army and Boston Police Department, where promotions are handed out based on connections and family loyalties. Just as he was made Detective, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and Billy had to go to war. As far as the Boyles viewed things, no one had attacked Boston or Ireland; they saw no value in another war to help rescue the hated British Empire. They cook up a plan to have him serve out the war safely in Washington DC on the staff of a distant relative, an unknown general named Eisenhower. Things don't work out the way they planned.
Ryan: Love it. And it’s always so revealing to hear where the first nugget of an idea comes from. And why your brain plucks it out of the universe, and understands instantly that it’s the beginning of everything. I get goose bumps, sometimes, thinking of it. This book turned out to be about combat fatigue, right? Why did you choose that element?
Benn: Because of a friend who's a state trooper. He was involved in two shootings, and was forced to kill his assailant each time. I saw how bravely he dealt with Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, and that got me interested in what things were like for servicemen during World War II. It seems that in every war--starting with the Civil War, when it was called Soldier's Heart--we learn about the effects of violence on soldiers and then promptly forget about it before the next war. As late as 1944, army divisions in Italy did not have a single psychiatrist on their medical staffs. Today, we see the same struggles with PTSD in Iraq and Afghanistan, and lately with the proper diagnosis of Mild Traumatic Brain Injury from roadside bomb concussions.
Ryan: This is book six in your Billy Boyle series. Is it necessary to read them in order? Why? How has Billy changed over the books?
Benn: No, it isn't necessary. There is a narrative arc concerning Billy and his English lover Diana Seaton, but that doesn't interfere with reading them out of order. Each book stands alone in terms of the story.I think Billy has changed, in that the war has hardened him. He's suffered, and I think he's lost some of the innocence he had in the first book. But that's natural and quite necessary. This isn't Hogan's Heroes.
Ryan: What do you want your readers to understand or realize when they finish the last chapter?
Benn: The price is high. And thank God we have men and women who are willing to pay it. That evil is all around us and hides within the places where fear causes us to look away. And that Billy has paid a price for his decision--but wait, I don't want to give that part away!
Benn does a masterful job of interlacing fiction and history...this nail-biting mystery...paints a picture so vivid that the reader can't help but be swept up in the action....sure to send new readers scrambling to catch up on the series, and eagerly awaiting the next installment! - The LA Examiner
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The mystery components are definitely competent and interesting, but for me the book really shines in its wartime storytelling. Benn recreates the stress (and sometimes insanity) of being a soldier in a way I found completely believable and empathetic.
At the outset, a lieutenant and a major are found dead in Italy. One has a ten of hearts and the other a jack of hearts on his body. The brass thinks there's a killer on the lose running up the brass totem pole going for the royal flush. Billy gets called in and as a result of the investigation gets thrown into the invasion at Anzio.
That's the murder mystery. The historical context is the Italian invasion in 1943-44 along with the early understandings of combat fatigue and psychopathic behavior. If that isn't enough, you will even learn the derivation of the Margherita pizza!
This is a fine stand alone novel. If you've read the others you will, of course, have a better understanding of the supporting cast like Kaz, Colonel Harding, Big Mike and others.
One last point. This is war. Unlike other authors, Mr. Benn recognizes that war causes death even to those who are friends and lovers. It adds a dose of reality to real good historical crime novels.
Needless to say, the jobs are anything but boring, and none too safe, either. Full of period detail and excellent recurring characters, you can see Billy trying to solve crimes in the midst of a war. After all, bullets are flying, so who can tell who shot who?
Start with the first, Billy Boyle, then work your way through the series. They make the most sense that way -- sort of like the war itself.
Don't miss this series if you like a good read.