A Mortal Terror: A Billy Boyle World War II Mystery
by James R. Benn
Review by Mel Jacob
Soho Crime Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9781569479940
Date: 13 September 2011 List Price $25.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
James Benn's sixth Billy Boyle mystery, A Mortal Terror, sends Lieutenant Boyle on a hunt for a serial killer amid the chaos of the Anzio invasion during World War II. Someone wants a full house of military officers dead. A playing card accompanies each death beginning with the ten of hearts for a lieutenant. Boyle believes the killer is a soldier, but the motive remains unclear.
Benn draws a sharp contrast between the military brass and the grunts on the line. Most of the brass live well and stay away from the front lines. Few travel with the men into the field. Fighting takes a heavy toll on the lieutenants who lead and the NCOs as battle fatigue saps men's will to fight. Most of the officers regard this malaise as caused either by cowardice or lack good leadership. Injured men are encouraged to return quickly to the line.
Boyle, an ex-Boston cop, works for Eisenhower as his personal cop. He works closely with Colonel Sam Harding and other intelligence agencies. The first three murders occur in Caserta, Italy, and the victims belong to the same army division. The senior officers in Caserta are fearful for their lives and demand protection, so Boyle is sent to investigate and find the murderer.
Gradually he uncovers links among the victims and sifts gossip for clues. The closed-mouthed NCOs are protective of their colleagues, dead and alive. One sergeant, now assigned to the CID, appears nervous, but will say little. He was transferred because he lost the will to fight after killing a young girl and her family during a mission against the Germans.
The muddy Italian winter takes a heavy toll on morale and health. Then, the troops are mobilized for the Anzio invasion and Boyle accompanies them. Meanwhile, Boyle's girlfriend is working undercover in Rome as a nun and he fears for her safety. He also learns his kid brother Danny has been sent to Caserta and assigned to the same platoon that has ties to the murders.
Benn has researched his history and provides interesting historical asides as well a familiar picture of World War II fighting. Strong character enrich the narrative and buddy relationships play a major role. Some stereotypes appear: the crusty sergeants; puffed up, ambitious officers; raw recruits; etc. Overall, the mix works well.
An exciting climax keeps the readers turning the pages and wondering what Boyle will do and whether he can prevent his brother from becoming another victim. A number of loose ends remain that offer plenty of scope for Benn to pick up in future Boyle investigations. Other mysteries with military settings include Martin Limon's The Wandering Ghost and Nelson De Mille's The General's Daughter.