Monday, October 17, 2011

A Mortal Terror

by James R. Benn

Pearls, grenades, mythological statues, and playing cards placed on dead bodies, all set in wartime Italy. What else could you ask for in a mystery story? Despite the average sounding title and the fact this reader is wary of historical mysteries, James Benn's latest installment in the Billy Boyle World War II mystery series is a delight to read. It provided a complex and intriguing conundrum and enough historical details to keep me turning pages.

This is a well written piece of literature full of mystery, murder, and the realism about some of the horrors of war. Whether you've read the previous five novels in the series or this is your first outing, you'll find yourself falling right into line with no misstep.

Billy Boyle, a detective in training and working under the command of General 'Uncle Ike' Eisenhower, is assigned to investigate the murders of two American officers stationed in Italy. With each person Boyle questions, he racks up more clues with no connections and finds himself chasing a killer who will stop at nothing to cover his tracks. In the midst of the case, Boyle learns his younger brother is being taken out of college to be an infantry replacement. Meanwhile, he sees soldiers suffering from the effects of combat fatigue while preparing for a major battle.

I like the idea of a mystery set during wartime, even though, I was a little cautious about it upon receiving it to review. But it works well. Serial killers weren't 'popular' or as prevalent back then as today, so this was something new for the detective to wrap his mind around.

Billy Boyle – Lieutenant, worked for the Boston PD, learning the ropes before he was called to war. Inexperienced as an actual detective, he learns quickly and comes across not as a bumbling fool, but as one who really cares for his job when he needs to do it.

Baron Piotr Augustus 'Kaz' Kazimierz – A mouthful of a name, but a good sidekick and partner for Boyle. Rich from a wise father, who, along with the rest of the family was killed when Germany invaded Poland. Kaz works as a translator and helps Boyle on his investigation

There a whole platoon of other characters, mostly military and each are shown with their own personalities. Very real, very believable. You have an immediate sense of who these people are, from the hard core Major to the grunt sergeants to Italian allied soldiers once enemies.

Basic, no frill. No long soliloquies or explanations that go astray.

Benn does his homework. I enjoyed the historical factoids about the war, Italy, and the time period. Since this book deals with a disorder many soldiers suffer, I liked the fact he comes at it straight without pulling the punches. He shows how even in World War II, the attitude about shell shock had started to change. Although it is set in wartime with death from many causes around nearly every corner, the graphic detail is kept to a minimum. Still, you do feel for what these guys and gals went through, and reminds you that soldiers are still today fighting for freedom.

This is not a light-hearted cozy, nor is it a hard-boiled bloody mess. It's a straightforward mystery you can readily imagine. It isn't over the top and it doesn't drag you down. You get a sense of war without being constantly barraged by it. I will be seeking out the previous five books.

My ranking

Red Belt

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