James. R. Benn’s successful Billy Boyle mystery series has captivated readers with its historical accuracy and intriguing plots. Now, Billy returns for his 10th outing in The White Ghost. Get to know James, his research and writing habits, his past as a librarian (including a connection to BCPL!) and enjoy a sneak peek at where Billy’s headed next.
Between the Covers: The Billy Boyle series is set during World War II. Was this a historical time period that always interested you? What is it about this war that remains a historical touchstone for so many? Do you hear from veterans and/or their families?
James R. Benn: When I was growing up, nearly every kid in the neighborhood had a dad who was in the war. It was part of the fabric of life. My father served in the China-India-Burma Theater and I was mesmerized by his stories and the souvenirs he brought home. When I finally started writing, the choice was based somewhat on that history, but also on a study of the historical mystery genre. I discovered it was the fastest growing fiction genre, and noted that the Second World War was not well represented. It was then a natural choice.
World War II was a turning point for America; we went into it a somewhat isolated, disparate nation. It was this war that truly created the famous melting pot of America. Men and women from all walks of life and regions were thrown together and sent all over the world. Nothing like that had ever happened, and I think there’s a yearning for that kind of commonality. And clear-cut power, as well.
I frequently hear from the families of veterans. I have interviewed several vets at the invitation of family members, who say that their father, uncle or grandfather has never talked about the war. It often begins with reluctance, and then a stream of stories, mostly about their buddies. Finally, they may talk about combat. Once, a D-Day veteran signaled me to come close as his family chatted on the far side of the room. “They always ask me if I killed anyone,” he whispered. “I tell ’em no. But I did.”
BTC: Billy was a secondary character in your first book. Why did that character stay with you and compel you to flesh him out more fully? As the war progresses, it becomes more complex and morally murky. How have these complications and sometimes harsh realities changed Billy?
JRB: He just plain wouldn’t go away. I liked his attitude, and thought there might be something to his Eisenhower connection which would allow me to visit a wide variety of situations. After completing research for the first book, I sat down to begin writing. I’d planned on using the third person, being somewhat intimidated by first-person narratives. Then I typed the first line:
I wanted to die.
That stunned me, but I stayed with it. I guess Billy lives somewhere in my subconscious.
After the first book, I understood that the war had to take an emotional toll for Billy. I received terrific advice from the novelist Rachel Basch, who told me “remember, the story has to move down as well as forward.” Billy is constantly confronted by terrible choices, navigating the lesser of multiple evils in a horribly evil war. It is taking a toll.
BTC: In The White Ghost, Billy goes back in time to the Pacific where he gets involved with the Kennedy family. Why was it important to you to set Billy in the Pacific? How critical was it that you share the story of John F. Kennedy and PT-109?
JRB: I was surprised at how many readers asked for a book set in the Pacific; perhaps a lot of them had family who served there. I was stumped at how to do that in a way that made sense. Then I thought the Boston Irish connection with Jack Kennedy would be interesting. But, in the timeline of Billy’s world, it was May 1944. By then, JFK was back in the States and out of the service for medical reasons.
In a flash of unplanned genius, I noticed a gap between the third and fourth books; several months which fit exactly into the events surrounding the sinking of PT-109. So…now, the story can be told.
As a baby boomer, I grew up in awe of JFK. I had no idea what a very strange family he came from. The Kennedy children were brought up in a highly competitive and emotionally traumatizing environment. The war was the best thing that ever happened to Jack Kennedy; it got him out from under the thumb of his overbearing father and showed him what regular folks were like. He really had no idea.
BTC: Billy has travelled all over, beginning in England and including Norway, the Mediterranean and Ireland. Is travelling to these locations part of your research? What is your most memorable trip?
JRB: Yes; my wife and I have traveled to England, Sicily, Italy and Ireland for research. Sicily was quite special; we approached a farmer about looking at some bunkers on his land where a battle took place. It turned out to be Easter Monday, which is a big family gathering day in Sicily. We were taken in and treated as honored guests among the 30 or so family members. No one spoke English and we didn’t speak Italian. With the aid of a pocket dictionary and the German I and one of the men spoke, we talked all day. And ate and drank. We left that night loaded with flowers and fruit. It was a wonderful experience, and a perfect example of Sicilian hospitality. They’ve survived centuries of conquest by absorbing newcomers.
BTC: Other than travelling, do you have any research or writing routines?
JRB: My research is built around reading widely about the subject and geographical area I want to explore. I try to immerse myself in the time and place, through contemporary fiction and nonfiction. My goal is not to simply understand the facts of what happened, but how people in the 1940s would have perceived what was happening to them.
BTC: You pay homage to Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie in two of the books. Who are your biggest influences as a mystery writer?
JRB: The Sherlock Holmes stories were the first mysteries I ever read, so it was hard to resist a ride down Baker Street. While I also enjoy Agatha Christie, it was the proximity of her home (used as a naval headquarters) to the Slapton Sands tragedy that led me to give her a walk-on in The Rest Is Silence.
BTC: You had a long career as a librarian! Did that influence your writing in any way? What is the thing you miss most about working in a library?
JRB: My first job at age 14 was as a library page. I became a librarian out of an unabashed old-school love of books and reading. I wandered around the library field quite a bit, even getting to know Charlie Robinson at BCPL when I worked for a library automation company. That career wanderlust was probably due to the fact I knew there was something else I wanted to do with my life. It was my wife who steered me in the right direction on my 50th birthday, but that’s another story. Right now what I like best about libraries is inter-library loan, the mainstay of my research!
BTC: Do you have a finite number of books planned for the series? Can you give us a preview of Billy’s next adventure?
JRB: Billy and I have not grown tired of each other yet. I’m about to turn in the manuscript for the 2016 release, The Blue Madonna. That book will bring us to D-Day, with Billy and Kaz behind enemy lines in a strange chateau with ghosts, mysterious tunnels, downed airmen and a certain SOE operative who Billy knows very well. And oh yes, murders.
I also have a vague idea for a book involving USO entertainers at some point. Billy needs to see a good show, don’t you think?
Game Warden Mike Bowditch returns to the service with a new-found maturity and a very challenging assignment in The Precipice by Paul Doiron. Deep in the Maine forest lies a part of the Appalachian Trail so remote that signs are posted to warn even seasoned hikers there is no assistance or supplies for the next hundred miles. Two young women, recent college graduates from Pentecost University, venture into this treacherous region and disappear without a trace.
Mike leaves a romantic getaway with his girlfriend Stacy Stevens to join the hunt. Mike, with the additional challenge of keeping up with his partner, is teamed with Bob Nissan, who set the record for fastest hike of the trail. Mike quickly determines the hikers “point last seen” and narrows the search. An all-out manhunt ensues. Multiple jurisdictions coordinate their efforts against time and the elements. The hikers could be lost, hurt or crime victims. Stacy, a wildlife biologist, joins Mike on the trail. Then, a new horror emerges — coyotes ranging the area might be guilty of an act too horrible to imagine. A passionate defender of the animals, Stacy is willing to risk everything to uncover the truth.
Paul Doiron is a Registered Maine Guide and the editor emeritus of Down East, The Magazine of Maine. His first novel The Poacher’s Son won the Barry Award and was a finalist for the Edgar and Anthony awards. He draws on his vast knowledge of the region to create a backdrop for characters carved straight out of the Maine woods. He is a master craftsman at devising plots that are not only suspenseful, but original. Mike’s progressed from impulsive novice to experienced professional through five previous works. While this book can read individually, I highly recommend you follow the path through the woods with Mike and discover the five previous books.
Fans of C. J. Box, Dana Stabenow and Nevada Barr are sure to be pleased.
What would have happened if novelist Henry James had met detective Sherlock Holmes? Granted, Holmes is a fictional character, but in The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons, the premise of this unlikely meeting is central to the story. Simmons, who is known primarily for sci-fi, fantasy and horror, combines elements of these genres in this narrative with historical events interwoven into his fictitious plot.
The story opens with Holmes saving James’ life by preventing him from jumping into the Seine one night. From that point on, the pair form an odd partnership that is at times akin to that of Holmes and Watson. However, James never fully believes that Holmes is really who he claims to be. Is this man who sometimes goes by the name of Jan Sigerson really THE Sherlock Holmes or is it all an elaborate ruse? What about the supposed suicide of James’ friend Clover Adams? Will Holmes be able to unravel the connection between Clover and the mysterious Irene Adler? For those familiar with the stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, there are references galore to many of the characters and plots of these detective tales.
In addition to Henry James, there are other historical figures making appearances including Samuel Clemens, Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Adams and Vice President Adlai Stevenson, to name a few. Simmons enjoys going into great detail about various events (e.g. the crushing of someone’s skull or James’ criticism of Doyle’s stories) which can either add to or sideline the central mystery of the story. For those who either enjoy a complicated mystery full of plot twists or the idea of famous historical figures interacting with famous fictitious ones, The Fifth Heart definitely has plenty of both to offer.
The days of summer are dwindling down, and all of the blockbuster movies we were waiting to see have long been released. What’s a cinephile to do when there’s not much left worth seeing in the month of August? Here are three entertaining novels that fall into typical movie genres to help you get through the rest of summer.
Looking for an edgy intergenerational dramedy? Pick up Mat Johnson’s Loving Day. Warren Duffy has returned to the Philadelphia ghetto to claim the dilapidated roofless “mansion” left to him by his recently deceased Irish American father, his black mother having died years before. Warren’s life can’t possibly get any worse, or so he thinks. He’s a not very good, not very successful comic book artist. He identifies as a black man although he’s so light complexioned he consciously overcompensates in an attempt to fit in. His marriage is over and the comic book shop his wife bankrolled for him has gone belly-up. He owes her some serious money and his only hopes of making some quick cash is drawing for hire at a comic book convention. Imagine Warren’s surprise when one of the convention attendees turns out to be the teenage daughter he never knew he had. Tal is more than surprised to learn about her racial identity, having been raised by her Jewish grandfather. She chalks up her hair and features to imagined Israeli roots. Johnson’s down-and-out protagonist retains his ironic sense of humor as he is forced to man up and become a father while exploring his own racial identity and helping his daughter to do the same. Potential love interests for both father and daughter make things interesting, especially since they stem from a special charter school at The Mélange Center, dedicated to helping biracial persons “find the sacred balance” between their black and white perspectives. Broadly comic and insightful as it comments on race issues today, Loving Day explores the dynamics of relationships of all kinds.
If suspenseful thrillers are your thing, look no further Michael Koryta’s latest. Last Words follows Florida investigator Mark Novak, a man whose wife and colleague at their pro bono legal firm is killed under mysterious circumstances. A year and a half later, a distracted and still distraught Novak is sent by his boss to a snow-covered Indiana small town to look into the unsolved murder of a 17-year-old girl, Sarah Martin. Although the case has been cold for nearly 10 years, it’s still very much on the minds of the residents of Garrison. It seems the main suspect, the eccentric outcast Ridley Barnes, wrote the firm to specifically request Novak’s services. Barnes raison d’etre is the continued exploration of the supercave beneath the town, a cave he believes is almost a living being. Barnes was the one who emerged from that cave with Sara Martin’s body after a search team failed to locate her. But Novak soon finds out that the caver isn’t the only potential suspect, and that the citizens of Garrison are not very happy to see the case revisited. Novak makes a crucial mistake heading into the case — he fails to do any research before he arrives, a decision he regrets almost immediately. Tightly plotted with interesting, well-developed characters and plenty of suspenseful action, both in the past and present, Last Words would make an excellent screen adaptation. Koryta has chosen an interesting backdrop for the potential crime, and he uses the cave and the exploration of its dark, cold, claustrophobic, labyrinthine network to suspenseful potential.
For the thrill of a satisfying psychological horror film, it’s hard to top Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts. As the book begins, 20-something Merry is returning to her family’s former Massachusetts home (now fallen to ruin and up for sale) to meet with a bestselling author. Merry has a fascinating story to tell, one that continues to permeate all aspects of her life. Fifteen years earlier, the Barretts were struggling. Their father had been out of work for some time, and they were in danger of losing their house. Teen Marjorie had begun acting strangely. The stories she has always told 8-year-old Merry have taken on a sinister tone, and she delights in upsetting her. Strange things start to happen. Is it mental illness or something supernatural? While their stressed mother takes Marjorie to a therapist, their father opts for visits with a Catholic priest with ties to the media. Soon, the cash-strapped Barretts foolishly agree to allow their situation to become a reality television show, The Possession, as a way to pay the mortgage. Tremblay builds suspense and tension by telling the story through present day Merry, 8-year-old Merry and a snarky horror blogger named Karen who is deconstructing The Possession 15 years later. A Head Full of Ghosts is funny, clever and thoroughly chilling. Tremblay brings in plot elements from many famous horror movies, even as he pays homage to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s famous short story of madness “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Shirley Jackson’s classic gothic chiller We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Could Marjorie have been faking the whole thing, or was she possessed a la The Exorcist?
Looking for the perfect book to take poolside, distract you on the plane or transport you from your backyard lawn chair? Lose yourself in The Wrong Man by Kate White or Lili Anolik’s Dark Rooms, each story filled with suspense and misdirection.
In The Wrong Man, Kit Finn just ended a staid relationship and feels like she is treading water. On a buying trip to Florida, the interior designer resolves to shake up her life and chance stepping outside her comfort zone. Chance presents itself as Matt Healey, a hot and handsome fellow New Yorker who arranges to keep this new romance going once they return to the city. But when Kit shows up at Matt’s door for dinner, she finds instead The Wrong Man; it’s the real Matt Healey and he is not the man Kit met in Florida. As Kit tries to figure out this case of misrepresented identity, she’s drawn in to a web of deceit and corporate corruption which just might turn deadly. Author Kate White, who served as editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan for 14 years, writes a snappy, sexy mystery which keeps the reader guessing till the last pages.
Author Lili Anolik is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. Her debut novel, Dark Rooms, tells a chilling and somewhat seamy tale. Posh Chandler Academy is an archetypal New England prep school brimming with wealth and privilege. Grace is a graduate of Chandler, her parents on its teaching staff, but she’s dropped out of college and is living at home while she focuses on solving the shooting death of her charismatic younger sister Nica. Nica’s death has unraveled the family — former good girl Grace is popping pills while her father drowns his sorrows in alcohol. The girls’ mother, a photographer who both favored and obsessively photographed Nica, decamped to an artist commune, effectively abandoning what’s left of her family. Grace’s refusal to accept the official story — that an alienated student smarting from unrequited love shot Nica and hung himself — helps her discover her own strength and independence as she unearths the grim secrets sheltered in Chandler’s ivy-covered towers.
For other twisty thrillers, try Disclaimer by Renee Knight or Where They Found Her by Kimberly McCreight.
University chums meet to celebrate the wedding of one of their friends in Ann Cleeves’ Thin Air. Lowrie and Caroline want to start married life in the Scottish tradition, with a hamefarin’ on the most northerly Shetland Island of Unst. After the bridal march, friends of the bride and groom serve the celebration supper. It’s a time of joyous celebration, of new beginnings and old friends. That is, until Eleanor disappears, and Polly receives a text message, “Don’t bother looking for me. You won’t find me alive.”
Detectives Jimmy Perez and Willow Reeves investigate. They discover that Eleanor was desperate to have a child and had lost a baby late in her pregnancy. Before she disappeared, Eleanor claimed to see the ghost of a local child who drowned in the 1920s. Did Eleanor commit suicide? What is the meaning of the apparition? Is the mystery of the child’s death linked to Eleanor’s disappearance?
We become a part of the old college crowd, living through the evolution of their relationships and their personal development from students to adults in a competitive world. We are privy to the maturation of the investigative team as well, as they resolve personal as well as professional challenges. Through it all, Cleeves’ tale has as many twists and turns as the cliff paths on the Shetland Islands. The stark remoteness of the Shetland landscape hints at undercurrents that ebb and flow with the tide.
Ann Cleeves’ body of work has been long-listed for the Crime Writers Association’s Dagger in the Library Award. This is the 6th entry in the Jimmy Perez series. The other titles are Raven Black, White Nights, Red Bones, Blue Lightning and Silent Voices. Her Jimmy Perez and Vera Stanehope characters are the basis of the television series Shetland. Fans of Peter Robinson, Elizabeth George and Stephen Booth will find a deeply satisfying mystery with an ending you won’t see coming.
Jane Shemilt has created a taut psychological thriller that explores the deepest desperation of a heartbroken mother in The Daughter. Jenny has a better-than-average life. She’s a general practitioner, wife and mother of 17-year-old twin sons and a 15-year-old-daughter. Her husband is a neurosurgeon whose star seems to be on the ascendancy. Her children are on the university track, her sons play sports and her daughter has landed the lead in the school play. Every peg is in its place, every role is in its compartment — until Jenny’s daughter Naomi goes to school and doesn’t come home.
This gripping chronicle of a crumbling family alternates between the time of the disappearance and one year after. Jenny is filled with self-recrimination, endless uncertainty and fear. As the events in the wake of the disappearance unfold in flashbacks, we are introduced to a mother who refuses to passively accept what her family, friends and the police tell her. Through the tumult of her emotions she sifts through every piece of potential evidence and every possible witness she can unearth. Was it a crime of opportunity, or was someone seeking revenge? If so, was it personal or professional? Did Naomi leave of her own free will, or was she taken? As Jenny delves ever deeper into her own actions and those of her family, she will discover tragic truths and an unimaginable outcome. The perfect image she had of her family never truly existed.
First-time author Shemilt is also a full-time physician. The Daughter was shortlisted for the Janklow and Nesbit award and the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize. Fans of Liane Moriarty’s The Husband’s Secret and Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry will appreciate this journey to self-revelation.
Two lives, seemingly unrelated, converge in unforeseen circumstances in Lou Berney’s The Long and Faraway Gone. Two events haunt their victims: the brutal murder of six movie theater employees, and the disappearance of a beautiful young woman. The ghosts from the past simply will not let go of the living.
Wyatt, the only survivor of the movie theater massacre, escapes Oklahoma City through his work, moving from one state to the next. Infamous for that single event, Wyatt changes his name and becomes a private investigator. A favor for a friend will start him on a path to the past to confront the one question that was never answered: Why was he spared?
Julianna worshipped her older sister, Genevieve, who took her to the fair and then disappeared forever. Genevieve left Julianna with $10 to buy food and told her she would be back in 15 minutes. In many ways, the now-37-year-old Julianna is still sitting on the bench at the fair waiting for her sister to return. Julianna is willing to sacrifice her career, her security and even her life to discover what happened to her sister that day.
As Wyatt works to discover the identity of a vandal determined to destroy his client’s business, he also uncovers the layers of denial that have dominated his life. As Julianna risks her sanity to uncover her sister’s fate, she must explore the demons that drove Genevieve to leave her that night.
Told in alternating voices, Berney twists his tale of obsession and corruption, of power and greed. Thoughtful, complex and absorbing, this character-driven novel is sure to please fans of intrigue. Berney’s unique plotting intertwines the characters’ stories deftly, proving that we can touch one another’s lives in wholly unexpected ways.
Ten years after an assassin’s bullet takes her husband’s life, Diane Fairmount champions the cause of his fledgling political party, The Common Way, in Brian Freeman’s suspense novel Season of Fear. Attractive, popular and topping the polls, it looks like Diane is destined to become Florida’s new Governor. When an insidious voice echoes from the past, Diane turns to her best friend Tarla Bolton, whose son is former FBI agent turned private investigator Cab Bolton. Cab explores beneath the hype and unearths dirty tricks, long-buried secrets and political machinations. There are right-wing extremists, covert political operations and the murder of a young political operative. Has Cab revealed a right-wing terrorist, or is it a shrewd plot to lead him off target? Teaming with political researcher Peach Piper, Cab must race against time to stop the killer. For there is another havoc on the horizon – a hurricane is bearing down on Tampa, Florida, and it just might permanently bury the evidence.
Brian Freeman has created a cross between Jack Reacher and Richard Castle; handsome, wealthy and dynamic. It’s impossible not to root for Peach, a deeply troubled young woman determined to avenge her friend’s death. Part complex political thriller, part intense police procedural, Freeman weaves a web of intrigue that will leave you gasping for air. Move over Virgil Flowers, and make room for Cab Bolton.
Brian Freeman is the internationally best-selling author of psychological suspense novels, including The Cold Nowhere, Spilled Blood and the The Burying Place. Brian's debut thriller Immoral won the Macavity Award and was a nominee for the Edgar, Dagger, Anthony, and Barry awards for best first novel. Cab Bolton first appears in The Bone House.
Author, journalist and former editor Judith Flanders has recently released A Murder of Magpies. This cozy London-based mystery has Flanders trading her more typical nonfiction writing for a witty whodunit novel.
Sam, an editor for a publishing house, finds that her pleasantly humdrum lifestyle has been turned upside down when her favorite gossip writer brings her a salacious manuscript. The book cites the illicit behaviors of the rich and famous. Shortly after receiving a copy, Sam’s life takes an unexpected turn for the worse.
When a bike courier is run down while carrying a copy of the manuscript, Jake, a handsome detective, seeks out Sam to see how the two are connected. After someone close to Sam goes missing, she puts on her sleuthing hat and works with Jake to find the culprit. Between the heat of adrenalin and the time together spent digging for clues, a romance ignites between Jake and Sam. Will Sam save her friend and get her banal life back?
A Murder of Magpies captures an even mix of effortless wit and downright detective spirit that will have you trying to figure out the mystery — if you pay enough attention, you just might. The novel is a colorful mashup of Bridget Jones and Sherlock Holmes.