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THE FIRST WAVE
By James R. Benn
Soho, 2007 ($24)
Reviewed by Shirley Wetzel
THE FIRST WAVE is the second in the Billy Boyle World War II series. The first book, BILLY BOYLE, was an excellent debut, and this one is even better. Ex-Boston policeman Billy thought he was getting a safe billet when he joined his relative's staff, but Uncle Ike didn't stay in Washington long, and neither did Lt. Boyle. It's November, 1942, and Billy is part of the first wave of Allied forces into French-held North Africa. The Allies aren't sure how the Vichy French forces will greet them. They hope the French will change sides, siding with them against the Germans. It doesn't take them long to find out that the support is weaker than they'd hoped for. Billy's secret mission, to go with Major Sam Harding, Eisenhower's deputy intelligence chief, and make contact with a group of insurgents, runs into trouble. They are arrested by the Vichy police, but the tide soon turns and the Allied forces liberate Algeria.
While in prison, Billy sees a familiar face among a group of captured insurgents, mostly college students. He'd last seen his lover, Diana Seaton, back in England, and he is stunned to find her with the doomed students. Billy is able to contact her before their captors take the students away for execution, but can't think of a way to save her. When Billy and Harding are freed, he sees another familiar face, Polish Lt. Piotr "Kaz" Kazimierz, a Polish Baron who'd lost his family and joined the British Army seeking to avenge them. Billy, Diana, and Kaz had worked together in England, and they were all devastated when Diana's sister Daphne, Kaz's lover, was killed. Kaz had been frail and even-tempered before her death. Now Billy can see that he's become fearless, even ruthless...and a little frightening in his intensity.
There's war on, but even so criminals still ply their trade and must be dealt with. Billy investigates a series of murders at the post, as well as illegal gambling, black market dealings in drugs and other contraband, and corruption in the military. Billy is no hero, just a regular cop from Southie. While on the Boston police force, he was not above doing the occasional "Christmas shopping" from seized merchandise, and if soldiers liberated a bottle of Scotch once in awhile, he can overlook it. When prized packs of cigarettes go missing from supplies meant for the troops at the front line, however, he draws the line, and when French thieves wearing American uniforms heist a life-saving drug he gets really, really angry. The Army hospital has a supply of a new miracle drug called penicillin, and the enemy is willing to pay a great deal to get it. Billy sees its value to the wounded when it saves a friend's life, and puts his own life on the line to get it back.
This is the second in the Billy Boyle series, and it is even better than the first. Benn's historical details are meticulous and so believable it almost seems as though he lived through the war himself. Billy is a great character, an ordinary man who rises to the occasion when he needs to, a flawed man who can't come to grips with the terrible things that happen to someone he loves, a loyal man who will stand by his friends and do the best he can to serve his country. I love this series.
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