A MORTAL TERROR, the sixth book in the Billy Boyle series, has Boyle assigned to an investigation in Italy in early 1944. The bodies of officers are found with a playing card, the cards representing the ascending order of the ranks of the victims. The men are strangled, suggesting that the killer and victims are known to each other. Lieutenant Billy Boyle is a Boston cop in civilian life and, through a quirk in family relationships, is related by marriage to Mamie Eisenhower. Billy gets assigned to her husband’s staff, the goal of the family, but that was when they thought Uncle Ike was going to be a desk jockey. Billy gets to travel with the general and this gives the author a reasonable position from which to get his protagonist all over Europe solving murders, an extraordinary concept when nationalized murder is happening all around.
The book opens in January, 1944, the same time at which the allies are fighting the Germans on Anzio Beach and Monte Cassino. There is an ever-shifting group of thousands of allied soldiers, any of whom could be the killer but it becomes apparent quickly that the killer is an American. The author doesn’t spend time describing the military activity. This is a character driven novel and the characters are strong enough to make this a war story without getting into a discussion of battles. He sprinkles the cast of characters with mention of Generals Eisenhower, Mark Clark, and John Lucas. The soldiers are a cross-section of the United States, exactly as the units existed during the war. Benn includes, as part of the story-line, the problem of battle fatigue, a problem that had been acknowledged after World War I. Fighting for one’s life and one’s country is noble; Boyle must find a killer who is killing for motives that are not clear; the victims are from different countries, different units, and have never crossed paths. Boyle has to find the connection before he can find the killer or, in this case, does it have to be the other way around?
This is the first book in the Billy Boyle series that I have read. I am a firm believer in the benefits of reading a series from the beginning but I began with the most recent book because of the connection to the battles of Anzio and Monte Cassino. My father took part in both, serving under General Mark Clark. His war was North Africa and Italy and he only mentioned one thing about his war, an experience that shook him for the rest of his life. Like Billy Boyle, my father was a kid from Boston who enlisted after Pearl Harbor. Born in 1920, his life before the army was formed by the Depression. There was little enough money to take care of the necessities of life; travel happened to other people until young men enlisted for travel to Europe to save civilization from Hitler and the Nazis. So, like most of the very young men who sailed off from the United States, there was a certain innocence about him. The author paints a scene in which Boyle observes a group of Italian women nursing their babies. He notices that while the mothers are covered in dust from the shelled buildings, the babies are clean. That vignette reminded me of my father’s view altering experience in Italy. When his unit went into a village that had just been abandoned by the German army, the women of the village came out of hiding, running to the American boys and offering to prostitute themselves in exchange for water for their children. This was beyond the scope of his understanding of war. Nothing could redeem those who forced this choice on women and no woman could be condemned for doing whatever it took to keep her child alive. The enemy acquired a different face that day. In that minor observation, inserted in the bigger story that moves A MORTAL TERROR, James Benn describes war on its most elemental level. The author understands war and leads his readers to that same understanding, removing it from the blood and death on the battle field and placing it among the women and children, those unacknowledged victims and heroes of warfare. Only a very talented writer can bring the reader into the story so simply and with such impact.
The author pulled me into the story with the first sentence – “Kim Philby owed me one.” World War II has always been of particular interest but so has that period of the Cold War when Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, and Kim Philby were selling the secrets of the British to the Soviet Union while Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were doing the same in the United States. Finding James Benn late is so much better than not having found him at all.
The notion of serial killers is a fairly recent anomaly. That isn’t to suggest that it didn’t happen; it just wasn’t given a name that would capture the imaginations of the public. The phenomenon, if that terms applies, exists because of the ease of movement that Americans enjoy. The virtually universal perception that all American families have multiple cars available to them has fed the belief that serial killers are a uniquely American product. Of course, neither perception is true. Serial killers just didn’t get the publicity that they enjoy today. Nothing beats having everyone in the world know who the monsters are.
One of the best of the media offerings on serial killers is “Citizen X”, a story about Andrei Chikatilo, a man who killed at least 50 women and children in the USSR. “Citizen X”, the designation given to the killer, details the lack of progress made on the case because serial killings did not happen in the USSR. It also acknowledges the tremendous toll searching for such killers takes on the police investigators involved. “Citizen X” shows up on cable television every now and then and Stephen Rea and Donald Sutherland are outstanding as the detective assigned to the case and his military boss.