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RAG AND BONE
By James R. Benn
Soho, September 2010 ($25)
Reviewed by Shirley Wetzel
After going through some harrowing times, 2nd Lt. Billy Boyle and Diana, the woman he loves, are on a potentially romantic break from the war, on a yacht near the Isle of Capri. It's December, 1943, and Italy is just the place for the two to rest and regroup. Once again, they can't catch a break. Uncle Ike, aka Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, needs Billy to return to London on an important mission. A Polish officer has been murdered, and with all the tension between the U.S. and British on one side and the Soviets on the other, the case needs to be solved as quickly and quietly as possible. Before Billy sets off, Uncle Ike finally pins a set of well-deserved 1st Lt. bars on his collar, so at least he gets something out of the deal. Diana also leaves for a secret assignment which Billy knows could prove deadly.
Back in London, he is delighted to see old friend and comrade in arms "Kaz" Kazimierz, a Polish officer and aristocrat Billy met on his first assignment in London. He's surprised to see that the frail, scholarly Kaz he remembers has turned into a pumped-up warrior. He's dismayed when he realizes that his mission involves Kaz and other Polish patriots who are extremely anti-Soviet -- maybe so anti-Soviet they could be involved in the murder and attacks on other Russians.
Kaz tells Billy why the Polish government in exile is so angry with the Soviets. The story he tells is true, gruesome, disturbing, and many people, then and now, have never heard of the atrocities committed by the Soviets against unarmed Polish soldiers, intellectuals, and other innocent Polish citizens. The Germans were the first to tell the world about the thousands of Polish officers who were slaughtered in the Katyn Forest by the Soviets, but the world, or at least the Allies, believed it was a lie, that it was the Nazis who committed the murders. Some Poles, in order to save their lives, joined the Soviets, but others like Kaz were determined that the truth would come out, using any means necessary.
One man survived the horror and made his way to London, but he is in a very fragile state of mind. The Poles know that he is the key to exposing the true nature of the Soviet government, but they have to wait until he becomes strong enough, physically and psychologically, to tell his story. People in high places will do anything to stop him, and that includes the British and Americans, who need the Soviets on their side to win the war.
Billy is torn between his friendship with Kaz, his own disgust at what the Soviets had done, and were continuing to do, to the Polish people, and his orders. Even in wartime, cold-blooded murder is wrong, but he can understand the need for revenge. He hopes Kaz, a prime suspect in the murder, is innocent, but if that proves not to be the case, he will do what he has been ordered to do.
Benn's description of war-torn London is spot on. He walks the streets where bricks are piled neatly in front of ruins that were once, and will be again, homes. He spends time in the Underground stations when the Germans begin a mini-Blitz, amazed at the resiliency of the British people. He even takes on a major crime lord and dallies in the black market (with the approval of the Army), bringing a bit of humor to a tense and dangerous situation.
This is the fifth book in Benn's Billy Boyle World War II Mystery series, and it is just as excellent, thought-provoking and entertaining as the previous four.
If you would like to read a review of other books in this series, please click on the title below.
THE FIRST WAVE
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