Justin's Reviews > Billy Boyle

Billy Boyle by James R. Benn
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Nov 23, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: war, mystery, historical-fiction
Read from November 23 to December 12, 2010

I've never been a mystery reader, and only started exploring the genre this year, when I began working as a librarian and inherited the helm of a mystery book club. I decided to give this one a try, since I've always liked stories with WWII settings. I expected a somewhat pulpy noir book, considering the setting. That's largely what I got, but I ended up being surprised; I loved this book a lot more than I thought I would.

This book introduces Billy Boyle, a cop from South Boston that has heretofore made do on the largess of his family and community connections. We learn early on that he is the nephew of a famous general, and thus he finds himself on his way to what he believes is a cushy desk job in the military. Instead, he is shipped off to England, and told that he is to put his detective skills to work under the personal supervision of the English and American military brass. A German spy threatens to reveal the secret plans being hatched to liberate Norway from the Nazis, and Boyle has been enlisted to ferret him out. As the investigation gets underway, though, a prominent Norwegian minister (and a possible suspect) commits suicide, and Boyle has reason to believe that foul play was involved. Along the way, Boyle unexpectedly earns two new companions who treat him like a bonafide detective instead of a jumped-up beat cop who knows the right people: an English Second Officer named Daphne Seaton, and Piotr Augustus Kazimierz, a mousy Polish baron that goes by "Kaz." As Boyle works to prove himself up to the task given to him, he realizes how entwined the various crosses and double-crosses really are, and how dangerous his new job really is, to both himself and to those involved with him.

The cover art and plot synopsis lead me to believe that I would find a lightweight, setting-focused read. I was fine with that, because that's exactly what I was in the mood for. Benn handles the premise just right; the first few pages transported me back to the 40s pretty effortlessly. The history is well-researched, but never dry or self-important, offering just the right balance of authenticity and readability. And the slang made me happy. I keep trying to bring back phrases like "say, Mac, what's the big idea" with varying levels of success, so I was wholeheartedly content with Boyle's "gee whiz" vernacular (although, the running joke of Kaz and Daphne trying to decode it got old pretty quickly).

So, I didn't expect the Great American Novel, and I didn't get it. But I finished this book a much bigger fan than I thought I'd be. The story's execution was somewhat predictable, and the pace gets muddied by various adventures that only serve to give Boyle cool, sexy stuff to do. But this book is just so damned readable. Boyle fits the archetype of the charming, serendipitous detective, but he is also full of self-doubt, and morally ambiguous enough to make him unpredictable. The supporting characters, while somewhat inconsistent in their development (for example, Kaz is layered and interesting, while Daphne is... not), are all uniformly likeable. Benn improbably creates an intimate "Scooby Gang," including the mucky-mucks at the top, in the middle of a vast and dehumanizing wartime setting.

The only reason I didn't give this five stars is because of the afore-mentioned Gumpish pace breaks. Also, the ending stretches credibility just a little bit more than the rest of the already improbable story, and I can't let go of the fact that Boyle solves the mystery based on a time-tested medical cliche that is flat-out incorrect. Honestly, though? I still liked the book.

I guess I am revealing myself to be a bit of a biased reviewer; I am willing to forgive a lot in books like this simply because I enjoyed reading them, whereas you get less leeway if I don't get my bread and circuses. There's a lot here at which to turn up your nose if you are a bonafide literati. And by that, I mean the smug, wispy buttholes in horn-rimmed glasses and ill-fitting sweaters, hanging around used bookstores in the hope of finding a Pynchon first edition. If you don't like WWII stories or light mysteries with plenty of noir homage, this one might not do it for you. However, I found this book to be a lot of fun. While it wasn't perfect, it has a lot of potential. I am definitely checking out the next in the series.
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