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A MORTAL TERROR
By James R. Benn
Soho Press, September 2011 ($25.00)
Kindle edition: $9.99
Audio edition: $19.95
Reviewed by Shirley Wetzel
Lt. Billy Boyle is back in London, working for General Eisenhower, when he decides to call in a favor from his contact in the British Secret Service, Kim Philby. He arranges to meet with the love of his life, Diana Seaton, who is working undercover for the BSS in the Vatican. Uncle Ike gives him five days leave, and soon he and Diana are blissfully reunited in Switzerland. She tells him and Philby disturbing rumors about what the Nazis are really doing to those Jewish "workers" in the camps. Philby, like others who've heard similar stories, doesn't believe her, but Billy does.
Their reunion is cut short when Billy is ordered to Italy on a special assignment. He returns to the Caserta, an Italian mansion near Naples now serving as headquarters for the Fifth Army in Italy. On his previous visit, just after the Allies took over Italy, the mansion was in disarray, looted and pillaged by troops on both sides. Now it has been restored to its former glory, but the occupants are there for business, not pleasure. Most of them, anyway. Senior officers enjoy fine dining with linen tablecloths on antique tables laden with china and silver. They are served by waiters the enlisted men call the "white jackets," soldiers who are recovering from shell shock, or as it is now called, combat fatigue. The doctor in charge thinks this is a good thing for them to do until they are well enough to return to battle. When Billy witnesses the reaction of one of the waiters when a tray is dropped, splinters of glass, china and metal hitting the floor in a loud clatter, he wonders about that.
Billy's assignment is to find a serial killer who is targeting officers. The killer might be a German, or an Italian still loyal to the old regime, but he could also be an American, so the situation must be handled carefully. He gets help from the Army CID, an American journalist, the Italian police, and members of the murdered officers' commands, but he soon realizes he needs more than that. Some of the men are withholding information, and he needs a heavy hitter to get them to talk. He calls in his best friend and comrade in arms, Kaz, and things start falling into place. When Billy first met Kaz, more properly known as Lt. Baron Piotr Augustus Kazimierz, he was a frail, sad man with a heart problem that should have kept him out of the military. He'd lost his whole family in Poland, and he wanted to avenge them, so he talked his way into the British Army. Since then, Kaz and Billy have gone through some rough experiences and personal tragedies. The Baron is now strong, fit, battle hardened and battle scarred, inside and out. He still maintains his aristocratic bearing when needed. He is an intellectual with a vast knowledge of history who speaks several languages, including Italian. He charms Billy's landlady, and manages to right an old wrong done to her from information turned up in the murder investigation, while at the same time helping Billy follow the tangled trail of the killer.
Billy and Kaz set out into the countryside on the trail of the killer, questioning witnesses and suspects. Billy is shocked to discover that there's another Boyle about to hit the combat line at a place called Anzio Beach, and there's not much he can do about it. The killer raises the stakes, and Billy and his team have to follow the game to its deadly conclusion.
As always, Benn vividly portrays the horrors of war and the bonds forged in combat. He brings up the important issue of battle fatigue, which didn't get much attention until WWII, and which was hotly debated by senior officers and doctors: were the men really ill, or just cowards? He uses real characters to add an extra note of historical authenticity. Kim Philby is a recurring character. Kurt Gerstein, whose story is the basis for Diana's information about Nazi treatment of Jews, was a German soldier, a Christian who became disillusioned with Hitler. He joined the SS to uncover the truth from within. Witold Pilecki was a Polish Army officer who got into Auschwitz on purpose, smuggling information on what was happening there through the Polish underground. Sadly, they weren't believed until it was too late. There is also a scene between Billy and a teenager who would go on to become a true American hero, because of his actions in battle and his courage in speaking out about his experience with combat fatigue.
Mr. Benn includes a bibliography and author notes that provide further information about the latter three men, and about combat fatigue. A MORTAL TERROR is another gem in the Billy Boyle series.
Other titles in the BILLY BOYLE: A WORLD WAR II MYSTERY series are:
BLOOD ALONE THE FIRST WAVE RAG AND BONE EVIL FOR EVIL
Please click on the underlined titles to read their review.
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