James R. Benn is no ordinary traveler. When he walks the streets of London, combs the beaches at Anzio or scales a mountain peak in Ireland—scouting settings for his Billy Boyle series of mysteries set during World War II—he travels through time as well as space.
“For me, the physical sense of place is a gateway to the temporal setting, a way to see the past through the eyes of the present,” Benn says. “I am not writing simply about London, or Rome, or Sicily. I’m writing about the perception of those places by a young kid in the 1940s.” A writer has to approach a setting with the desire to understand what about that place informs the lives of his or her characters. “The Great Depression, the insularity of American life before 1941, the strong ethnic identity that bonded families to their past and each other: All these things come into play, so that when Billy Boyle first walks the streets of London in 1942, you see that setting mediated by his own personal understanding of the world.”
A former rookie police detective from Boston, Second Lieutenant Boyle lands in London as special investigator to a distant family relative, “Uncle Ike,” aka General Dwight David Eisenhower. Boyle’s cases send him across Europe. In Billy Boyle, the series opener, Billy stalks a spy in German-occupied Norway. In Blood Alone, Billy enlists the Mafia to support Allied efforts in Italy. And in A Blind Goddess, his latest and eighth case, published this month, Billy pursues the murderer of a villager in England.
And so to travel to the time the stories take place, Benn consults sources that picture Europe and, in particular, London during the war.
“I use period maps and websites, which show where every bomb dropped on London hit,” he says. “The Then and Now website features World War II-era photos superimposed over current photographs. And visiting the Churchill War Rooms in London, seeing them as they actually were during the Second World War, helps to focus my vision and clarify the setting for the reader.”
As Benn follows Billy’s footsteps, place melds into plot.
“When my wife and I visited Anzio to research A Mortal Terror, we spent a few days in Rome. That’s when I noticed the Door of Death at St. Peter’s Basilica. It’s the leftmost of the five doors and is only opened for funerals. I knew immediately that a dead body had to be found there. That’s how Death’s Door came about.”
Benn adds that details like the Door of Death can also present their own puzzles. This happened when Benn and his wife were hiking Germany’s Harz Mountains as Benn prepared to write On Desperate Ground, a World War II thriller that preceded the Billy Boyle series.
“We came upon a German military cemetery, accessible only by a hiking trail,” Benn says. “The gravestones showed the dead were all old men and young boys. What was odd is that there was a monument to ‘unknown Russians’ buried there. Nationalities are never mixed in military cemeteries, so why were Russians interred among Germans? I worked out my own answer in the book.”
A visit to another location was nearly as threatening as one Billy might face.
“In Sicily we stopped at a remote mountain village reputed to be the base for the island Mafia chieftain,” Benn recalls. “I felt like a dozen eyes were watching us and I told my wife to put the camera away.”
Billy’s travels—and Benn’s research—also bring them face to face with major conflicts that surfaced during the war. These become the themes of the books. In A Blind Goddess, Billy confronts the racism that boiled up during the conflict.
“The Army was woefully unsupportive when it came to pursuing justice for blacks abused and killed by whites in the south. There was too much political pressure to keep the Southern Democrats happy to challenge the racist environment there,” he says. “Ultimately, there were great strides made. Black units fought well, and some whites willingly changed their attitudes after encountering black soldiers on something approaching equal terms.”
However exhaustive Benn’s research may be, it also offers the salubrious pleasures of travel.
“What a life,” Benn says, “when your research consists of sitting in a café in the Piazza Navona in Rome soaking up the local color.” Then there’s research about Billy’s liquid refreshment. “When Billy drinks a local ale,” Benn says, “you can be sure I’ve worked hard to get that right!”
Gerald Bartell’s book coverage also appears in the Washington Post, the Kansas City Star and the San Francisco Chronicle.