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Essex author James Benn’s Billy Boyle detective series is set during World War II, and Benn says his books are in part a way of preserving the stories of that generation. (Photo courtesy of James Benn )
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World War II is history, but James Benn has also made it into mystery. In time for Veterans Day on Saturday, Nov. 11, Jim has just published the 12th book, The Devouring, in his detective series featuring Billy Boyle, a captain in the United States Army in Europe during World War II.
Benn, who lives in Essex, surveyed detective literature before deciding on a time frame in which to set his own series. He knew historical whodunits were the fastest growing segment of the mystery market, but he wanted to know in what era to set his stories.
“There were lots on Greece and Rome, but very little on World War II,” he recalls, as he reflects on his decision process.
Not only did other mystery writers neglect the war period, but that era also connected to Jim’s past. “Growing up in the l950s, we all played Army. Everybody’s dad had been in the service; it was a backdrop to life,” he says.
And so Jim created Billy Boyle, a rookie Boston police detective whose family relationship to General Dwight Eisenhower, then the supreme commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, got him a plum job attached to the general’s staff. The fictional Billy was related to Ike through his wife, Mamie.
According to Jim, the Eisenhower connection was a way of enabling the 22 year-old Boyle to be involved in high-level intrigue.
“I didn’t want Billy Boyle encumbered by having to get permissions to do things; he was pretty young, but the connection to Eisenhower gave him carte blanche,” Jim says.
And Eisenhower is not the only famous name to appear in the Billy Boyle series. In The White Ghost, set on an island in the Pacific, Billy must find out whether future president John F. Kennedy, then a naval lieutenant, was involved in a local murder.
In other volumes in the series, Billy solves mysteries in Norway, Italy, England, Vatican City, and, in Jim’s most recent book, Switzerland. The Devouring involves looted Nazi gold and the complicity of Swiss banks in using that gold to finance the German war effort.
Billy Boyle’s cases end auspiciously with the discovery of the murderer, but the series itself began most inauspiciously. Jim was repeatedly rejected as he tried to market the first two books, which he had written before he had a literary agent.
After he had gotten 200 rejection letters, he stopped counting—but not searching. He finally located the perfect agent, a man who knew World War II through personal experience. He had lived through the Blitz, the bombing offensive targeting London in 1941-’42.
“He got it,” Jim says of the agent.
With proper representation, Jim’s first book in the Billy Boyle saga sold to a publisher in two months.
When he thought about writing the series, Jim assumed it would be done as a third-person narrative, but that’s not what happened.
“I remember sitting down to write and the first word that came out was ‘I.’ So I realized Billy wants to tell this story himself. It would have been a mistake to tell it in the third person,” he says.
Jim has honed his own skills over the course of the series and says he has learned as much about what not to put in as about what to include.
“Leave out the qualifiers like just, nearly, maybe, perhaps,” he says.
Sometimes he adds, people ask him which book to start with. The logical answer is book one, but he feels some of the later mysteries, where he is technique is sharper, are even better.
Although he can see parts of himself in his main character, Billy is not a Jim Benn clone.
“I wish I had his quick wit,” Jim says. “I have to spend a half hour at the computer to get that.”
Books have been Jim’s career, but not as a writer. He spent some 35 years as a librarian, working as head of information for the West Hartford Public Schools and in his last position as head of the Godfrey Memorial Library, a private facility for genealogy, history, and biography in Middletown.
He left library work in 2011 to write full time. Still, his professional skills are useful as he assembles historical material for his books. He fills notebooks with information before he starts to write, but doesn’t rely on them in writing.
“When I feel I know it in my bones, without referring to the notes, that is when I start writing,” he says.
He and his wife Deborah Mandel, a psychotherapist, now spend winters in Florida and recently moved from Lyme to a condominium in Essex—”Simplifying our lives,” he says. They first saw the condominium complex in which they now live when they were kayaking on the Connecticut River.
Jim has already completed the next volume in the Billy Boyle series, Solemn Graves, about the fighting in Normandy immediately after the D-day invasion. It will come out in fall 2018. At the moment, he’s at work on the following book, When Hell Stuck Twelve, about the liberation of Paris. It is scheduled to appear in 2019.
He is not concerned that he will exhaust the World War II material.
“There are plenty of stories; I am not at all worried about that,” he says.
He has also recently completed a young adult novel about the Revolutionary War and contributed a short story to a Christmas-themed book of mysteries, The Usual Santas: A collection of Soho Crime Christmas Capers.
Jim gets positive reactions to his books from surviving World War II veterans, often in a roundabout way.
“I hear from their relatives. There are not that many of them and not many use email,” he says.
Because there are so few of the people who fought in World War II left some 72 years after it ended, Jim recognizes the importance attached to their recollections.
“I feel a certain responsibility to preserve those memories, to tell their stories,” he says.
For more information on James Benn and the Billy Boyle series, visit www.jamesrbenn.com.
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