Billy Boyle was a Boston cop, from a family of well-connected cops. When the US joined WWII his family pulled strings to get him stationed someplace safe, assigned to a relative’s husband who was a general. Of course, it wasn’t entirely his safety they had in mind – being a Boston cop is no job for a shirker; the family, Northern Irish, is rabidly anti-English, and they consider the Alliance unconscionable. Little did any of them know that the general they saw him attached to, “Uncle Ike”, would wind up commanding the whole shebang, resulting in Billy working his way through exactly the war zones the family was trying to keep him out of. So here at the beginning of A Mortal Terror Billy is, about to be sent off to investigate a pair of murders in embattled Italy – at Caserta Palace, taken over by the Allies, just before Anzio: January 1944 – before it becomes three of a kind.
This is the sixth in the Billy Boyle WWII mystery series, which is great news. I obtained this as an ebook for review from Netgalley – thank you – and it’s the best thing I’ve had from them that was not by Laurie R. King – – so I love knowing that there are five other books ready to be read. A Mortal Terror is terrific. It’s different, very different, both from what I’ve been reading lately and from the mainstream: a knowledgeable and wonderfully detailed depiction of the European theatre of the early part of WWII (lots of room to move there, both in time and space) combined with a good solid murder mystery.
The setting is powerful. This is perhaps the strongest evocation of the front lines of WWII I’ve ever read … I daresay there are other books more graphic, but I’m not sure I’m constitutionally up to anything stronger. The terror, the continual noise and complete lack of safe places (a bunker was absolutely necessary, but could also be the death of you if it caved in) – and the mortal stupidity of the upper echelons… It all never ceases to amaze. The insane courage it has to take to be handed a gun and pointed in the direction of lots of enemies pointing guns right at you … How do you even do that?
( – Above are the statues featured at the beginning of the book, Diana bathing and Actaeon pursued by his own hounds.)
And the setting does not make for an easy murder investigation. Besides the two-fold physical threat against Billy in the form of a murderer becoming aware of the inquiry and the war always trying to kill him, there are the added quirks of witnesses being redeployed, and could at any moment be killed in action (if not by the killer). And then there’s the tangle of dealing with not only Military Police, the commanding officers of the soldiers tangentially involved, and his own higher-ups, but also the Italian police – who are now allies, but weren’t always. And then, just because Billy didn’t have quite enough on his plate, he discovers that his little brother is being unexpectedly transferred from what was thought to be a relatively safe officers’ training program to the couldn’t-be-less-safe front lines. He barely even has time to worry about the love of his life, who is involved in espionage in Rome.
There is so much scope here – as I said, within the setting, and also within the compass of Billy’s job. He can be sent literally anywhere to look into anything. Not to mention I can foresee stories in which his comrade in arms, Polish baron Lt. Piotr Kazimierz (Kaz), pulls him into situations instead of the other way around (which may have already happened; I haven’t read up on the previous novels). I can’t wait to get my hands on more of Billy Boyle.
Also, the covers? Are gorgeous.
One kind of cool note: James R. Benn lives and works as a librarian a couple of hours east of me here in Connecticut. If gas prices weren’t prohibitive I’d be tempted to stop by his library and say thanks.