Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Rest is Silence

James R. Benn's The Rest is Silence (A Billy Boyle World War II Mystery) (2014, Soho Crime) had several major strikes against it.

First, it came as an offering from the Soho Crime Club.  While I love the idea of the Crime Club, I don't like reading series out of order, and since what they send you are their latest publications, you get a lot of that.  Also, several of the Club's books haven't been great, so I have a growing pile of ones I haven't even started or got a few pages into and put down.  More on that next time.

I also generally dislike the appearance of Famous Real People in the story.  That's not to say that a realistic or even non-fiction backdrop to a story isn't a good thing.  You can learn something anywhere, right?  And if your learning comes from the background or setting to a novel, well, that is better than nothing.  But the lapsed historian in me balks at the putting-of-words-into-mouths that is necessary when FRP are introduced into the plot.

And the whole British country house setting for one plot thread in Benn's story felt a little too Downton Abbey, right down to loyal retainers with complicated pasts and an acerbically entertaining matriarch.

Finally, Yanks in WW2, how cliched can you get?  Our Hero Capt. Billy Boyle, a peacetime cop straight outta Southie, is no exception.

So why did this particular story, out of all the barely-started books piled next to the tub and my bed, stick, to the point where I found myself toting it along to the gym and ballet class, just to keep up with the story?

I am a bit of an Anglophile, so there's that.  And we've got tea, and country houses, and atmospheric coastline, and colorful locals, so if you are too, there's the whole package.

But wait, there's more.  The plot development is terrific:  meandering, but not slow, and it has more coves and inlets than the Devon coastline in which the story is set.  The twists built on one another in such a natural fashion that it (almost) never felt forced.  When I found myself at the end wondering what had happened to the body that started it all, but able to reconstruct the whole tale, I realized I was in the presence of some very careful planning.

Our Hero, the aforementioned Boyle (hard to take seriously if you are a fan of Brooklyn Nine Nine), is a Captain in the US Army, working for an intelligence branch of SHAEF.  His job, as detailed in eight previous novels, is to investigate crimes that might have an impact on the US' activities in the European theater during the Second World War.  I've read the first in this series, and enjoyed it more or less, but apparently quite a lot has happened to Our Hero, as is regularly alluded to by cryptic references to difficult times in North Africa and German POW camps.  (This is why I don't like reading series out of order, dammit, I don't like to not know!)

A body has washed up on a beach in Devon, where, as it happens, the Allies are engaged in top secret (well, as secret as anything involving thousands of soldiers and ships and air support can be) activities preparing for the invasion of Fortress Europe.  It is late April, 1944.  Boyle and his sidekick Kaz (a war-damaged but still urbane and lethal Polish count) are asked to find out where the body came from, because if, as feared, it is a German spy, then the entire Normandy (oops - nobody is supposed to know that) landing is potentially compromised.  While in the area, they stay with an old pal of Kaz' from Oxford, David Martindale, as his family's country estate, Ashcroft.

Upon arrival at Ashcroft, the plot veers into British country house murder territory.  No one is dead yet, but you can tell by the strained conversation, heavy drinking, and dagger-like glances that someone will be, soon.  Do I even have to mention that inheritance is at stake?  Needless to say, Billy and Kaz get drawn into these dramas, as well, not particularly reluctantly.

In yet another Brit mystery cliche, a possible illegitimate son turns up as a long-lost heir to Ashcroft, and somehow manages to knit the two plot skeins together.  This is made plausible by that historical backdrop:  the Allies really did practice their Normandy landings here, with grave consequences that you can read about at the end (or skip ahead and read the Author's Note on pp. 324-325 - it won't ruin the plot).  US Army staff really did billet all around the countryside, and famous people like Mrs. Mallowan really did give up their houses for the war effort.  And the ghastly tragedy that puts the story on fast-forward really did take place and is deeply sobering to contemplate.  There is a not-particularly-subtle subplot on the personal cost of war - physical, psychological, social - which is always interesting to consider with respect to this Good War and all of our other apparently not-so-good ones.  Some of the characters get through, others don't, and the one cliche we are spared is that of fighting for the greater good, to keep the world safe for democracy, etc.  Boyle can hide his wounds, but others cannot, and at times it feels as if only the momentum of the war - the next action must turn the tide, or the next, or the next - keeps them from sinking.

Speaking of Mrs. M, I won't say more other than to say that this was the most forced scene in the story, and if I hadn't been so deep into the plot by that point, I'd have tossed that book across the room.  Same with Ike (who, to be fair, is Billy's uncle, and so appears in many of these books) and Yogi Berra, no kidding.  But again - look it up!  The past ain't what it used to be, if you know what I mean.  (187-188)

The story is told in first-person, from Billy's perspective, and while he claims to just be a kid from Southie, he's obviously no idiot.  A Wahlberger would play him in the movie, of course.  Billy Boyle is one series I might go back to, to fill in the gaps.  But he's going to have to wait his turn because there are a lot of other books in the pile.

1 comment:

  1. Wahlberg would be great! Matt Damon circa Good Will Hunting was how I first envisioned Billy. His loss he's aged out of the opportunity. Thanks for the tough, witty, and thoughtful review.