Joseph Finder is a bestselling thriller writer, and winner of the International Thriller Writers Award for Best Novel for Killer Instinct and winner of the Barry and Gumshoe Awards for Best Thriller for Company Man.
Once in a while a book comes along that sweeps you into its world so completely you forget you're living in the age of instant messaging and electronic cars. Jim Benn's latest Billy Boyle World War II mystery, A Mortal Terror, did that for me, pulling me out of the 21st century and into an Audie Murphy movie.
In fact, Audie Murphy himself makes a cameo appearance in this sixth Billy Boyle adventure. Lieutenant Billy Boyle, an investigator on the staff of General Dwight D. Eisenhower ("Uncle Ike" to Billy), runs into the war's most decorated soldier in January 1944, just before the Battle of Anzio. Boyle, of course, has no idea he's talking to someone who'll be an international celebrity. Murphy is just another sergeant, shivering with the malaria he picked up in Sicily. It's one detail among many that bring Boyle's world to life.
In the days before Operation Shingle (the Allied amphibious landing that led to the Battle of Anzio), Boyle is sent to the Italian front to investigate two murders of officers, a lieutenant and a captain, whose bodies are marked by playing cards. As Boyle investigates with his comrade-at-arms, Polish Lieutenant Baron Piotr Augustus Kazimierz (Kaz, to his friends), more officers die. It becomes clear that a serial killer is working toward a "royal flush" of increasingly high-ranking officers.
Mysteries and thrillers set during wartime run the risk of trivializing their settings, giving the smaller mystery precedence over the vast life-and-death drama of war. Benn never lets us forget about the war, folding history seamlessly into the plot. Boyle must fit his investigation into the army's movements, and is interrupted more than once by attacks and evacuations. Beyond that, the murders themselves seem to spring from the war, as one of the early victims is a doctor who studies battle fatigue (what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder). Another doctor tells Boyle that 98% of all soldiers will experience battle fatigue if left to fight long enough; the other 2%, he says, are psychopaths. But how can Boyle distinguish between the psychopath and the perfect soldier?
Meanwhile, Boyle worries about his younger brother, newly arrived on the battlefield, and tries to process a mind-boggling report from his love interest, intelligence operative Diana Seaton, about mass murders of Jews in German concentration camps. It's an extraordinary amount of information to pack into just over 300 breakneck pages, but Benn juggles it all like a master--and ends the story with a cliffhanger that leaves us impatient for the next Billy Boyle mystery.
There's much here to reward loyal fans of the series, but new readers will have no trouble jumping into the action and figuring out who's who. After this book, however, they'll want to read Boyle's story from the beginning. The six Billy Boyle novels, taken as a whole, are not only crackerjack mysteries, but a vivid, human-scale history of the Second World War. A Mortal Terror's ending strongly suggests that Boyle's next adventure will take him behind the front lines, into Germany itself. As the war moves toward the climax of D-Day, Benn's series is reaching its own crescendo.