James R. Benn is the author of the Billy Boyle World War II mystery series. Billy is a young Boston cop who is called up to serve with the Allied forces. He finds himself assigned to the staff of a distant relative of his, a certain Dwight D. Eisenhower. Eisenhower uses Billy to deal with sensitive problems that could damage the war effort if Billy doesn’t solve them first.
GC: Tell us about Uncle Ike.
JRB: When I began this series, I knew I wanted a military detective at the heart of major events of the Second World War. What better way to do that than to make him a distant relative of the man in charge? Ike also serves as a sober counterpoint to Billy’s sardonic view of the world, continually reminding him of the “terrible mathematics of war.”
Billy meets a lot of famous people along the way. I use this technique in my own books, so I’m intrigued by how someone else does it. Do you choose who gets to appear, and then find a plot to match? Or do you pick a plot and then go looking for which interesting people in real life were nearby?
There are some people who simply demand to be in a book. Sterling Hayden, for one. In Death’s Door, he nearly took over the narrative, and I had to force him off the stage. Adventurer, OSS agent, pirate, smuggler, leftist, and sometime actor, he’s a larger than life guy. In my current work-in-progress for 2017, I’m about to work in Moe Berg – journeyman baseball player, self-taught intellectual, and once again, OSS agent. Tasked to assassinate Werner Heisenberg in Switzerland (if he revealed information that Nazi Germany was close to an atomic bomb) Moe talked his way into a high-level university scientific presentation, decided a Nazi bomb was not in the cards, and ended up dining with Heisenberg. Can’t make this stuff up.
The love of Billy’s life is Diane Seaton, who happens to be an agent for the Special Operations Executive. How close is Diane’s experience to the real SOE?
Her experience is meant to be a tribute to the women of the SOE. Thirty-nine were sent into occupied France; fifteen of them were executed after hideous tortures. These very young women were incredibly brave volunteers. Women were selected for work with the Resistance since they were not liable to be rounded up for slave labor details, as young men were.
Billy’s good friend and companion Kaz is a bit of a tragic figure. (At least, I think of him as tragic.) His full name is Piotr Kazimierz, he’s a Baron of the Polish aristocracy, and his whole family has been murdered by the Nazis. Which makes him a very unusual companion for a Boston cop! Why Kaz?
Actually, Kaz was to have been the murder victim in the first book. It was necessary to make the war personal for Billy, who at that time viewed it rather abstractly. So Kaz was going to die. But then he grew on me, and I saw the value when writing in the first person, to having a close companion who could go off and investigate on his own. So in Billy Boyle, someone else had to die…
This is an author-to-author question: I write mysteries set in classical Greece, 2,500 years ago; you write mysteries set in WW2, 75 years ago. We both have to write a convincing world that is true to the times. Which is trickier? Mine is harder to research, but there are fewer people likely to catch me out on errors. Your world is well documented, and there are people still around to catch even the tiniest mistake. Do you get readers writing to you about the setting, the background, or the war?
Absolutely. And all are supportive, straightening me out on minute details of units and weapons. I have an online community of WWII experts, who advised on such things for the upcoming Blue Madonna as how to blow up a stone railroad bridge. Hint: it isn’t easy. I made repeated mistakes on the handling of a .45 automatic pistol, and received so many comments that I changed Billy’s weapon of choice to the much simpler .38 Police Special Revolver. You really don’t want to anger fans who are well-armed.
I love your covers. How did they come about? Was the style a deliberate plan?
Yes, the style was the creation of the late Laura Hruska, co-founder of Soho Press. It was pure genius to work with that art deco/propaganda poster style. And since I caught a mistake in the draft of the first cover (a modern sports car afire instead of a 1934 Riley Imp) they’ve involved me in every step of cover art design. It’s a lot of fun.
What’s next for Billy?
Blue Madonna comes out in September 2016. It’s finally D-Day. But first, Billy has to find out why he’s being court-martialed, and why London gangster Archie Chapman (from Rag and Bone) is testifying against him—while in the company of Billy’s boss, Sam Harding.
I’m now working on The Great Devouring for next year (working title). It’s the name the Gypsies gave to their holocaust at the hands of the Nazis. It’s set mostly in Switzerland. You know, neutral Switzerland? Which was really more a wholly owned subsidiary of the Third Reich. But don’t get me started…
A big thank you to James for the interview!
If you’re new to Billy Boyle, and you want to explore murder and mayhem in the desperate chaos of World War II, then begin with the novel of the same name: Billy Boyle!
Gary Corby is the author of the Athenian Mystery series for Soho Crime.