Soho Crime (September, 2018)
A Billy Boyle World War II Mystery (Book #13)
by Shirley Wetzel
July 1944: Occupied France. It has been a month since the allied troops stormed the Normandy beaches on D-Day, and much of the Occupied Territory has been liberated. The Germans are fighting for their lives as the Allies push onward to Paris. Captain Billy Boyle and his sergeant, Big Mike, are sent to Pressoir Javier, a cider press near the village of Bricquerville. As they pull up at the manor house they can hear the sound of battle from the front line, a stone’s throw away.
Boyle, a detective from the First Army headquarters, expects the investigation to be fairly cut and dried: some G.I. might have had a beef with the victim, maybe a fight over a woman, something simple, open and shut. It doesn’t take long to realize that the case is much more complicated, and dangerous, than that. He and Big Mike walk past a group of soldiers loafing around outside the manor house with no apparent purpose. They say they haven’t been inside the house, and indeed the crime scene hasn’t been touched. Major David Jerome’s blood-soaked body is slumped on the sitting room floor, throat slashed, broken glass around him.
As he examines the room, he senses that he is being watched. He turns to see a young woman on the stairs staring impassively at him. She is beautiful, but he is shocked to see that her dress is covered in blood. Madame Javier, the owner of the cider press, quickly ushers the girl out of sight. Billy wants to question her at once, but Madame Janvier tells him the girl she calls Yvonne has not spoken a word since she showed up on the doorstop a few weeks before. She appeared to have been beaten and tortured.
Billy senses that something is off with the whole picture. He wants to question the men out front, who, like the major, belong to the Second Armored Division, but they’d vanished without a word soon after his arrival. He sends for Lieutenant Kazimierz, his right-hand man in several previous murder cases, and they and Big Mike set out looking for the Second’s headquarters. They find something entirely different: a group of special troops who were recruited for their particular sets of skills. They are called the Ghost Army, men who use camouflage, including fake tanks, and sound effects that cause the enemy to think they were facing a much larger formation. They are warned not to speak of this top-secret mission and sent on their way.
Back at the manor house, Billy attempts to question Yvonne, to no avail. Every man who sees her falls instantly in love, hoping to be the Prince Charming to awaken this sleeping beauty with a kiss. The soldier who’s been assigned to drive the detectives around is one of them, but unlike the others she responds to him, even whispering two words that become a major clue. Billy thinks she holds the key, and he and his team travel the countryside in a search for the truth, even going behind enemy lines.
They drive on narrow roads edged by the ever-present hedgerows, through towns and villages devastated by the war by both the enemy and the Allies. At this time between the end of the war and the restoration of a new French government, some Resistance fighters are settling old scores and taking revenge. It was a time called the wild purge, when men like Commandant Legrand reveled in executing war profiteers and collaborators and humiliating young women who’d consorted with the Germans. Billy and his friends are sickened to see this travesty, and horrified to watch the villagers turn from ordinary citizens into a howling lynch mob.
This is the thirteenth in the highly regarded Billy Boyle World War II mystery series. Each novel has been better than the last, and this is the best yet. Mr. Benn, a former librarian, does meticulous research. True events and real people are woven into the story seamlessly. It is a joy to watch as Billy, the clueless young 2nd Lieutenant at the beginning of the war, has become a battle-hardened detective who’s seen it all yet manages to keep his humanity intact. Kaz, once a broken man who’d lost his family and the woman he loved, has found a reason to go on. The other characters have evolved as well.
The description of the French countryside in all its beauty and sorrow are so real that readers will feel like they are walking or driving through it. The sounds and sights of battle and its devastation are vividly rendered. Mr. Benn has once again created a masterpiece.
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