Many would argue that the Mystery is the most challenging form of genre fiction to write and write well. Not only is the author required to employ all the usual craft of writing an entertaining story; interesting plot, passable prose, character development, a riveting sense of place, but also a puzzle for the reader, and a puzzle that, as Raymond Chandler put it, “ The solution, once revealed, must seem to have been inevitable.” It helps, too, if the author can work into the story topics that are pertinent socially. Hammett did it by centering his stories on the corruption of small and large town politics. The modern master Walter Mosley does it by drawing scenes that depict the disadvantages that minorities face in daily life, and he does it while never seeming to preach.
If the mystery is the most challenging form of genre fiction, then historical fiction must be a close second. In historical fiction the challenge is first an in-depth knowledge and understanding of the era, the characters and the events of the time the author uses to center his story upon. On first glance it may look easy. But it never is. With historical fiction the writer must assume that the reader is more than a little familiar with the actual history, therefore playing loose with the facts, events and characters is rarely allowed.
James R. Benn has managed to not only write a first rate mystery, but also convey very accurately an era from history. Benn’s Billy Boyle mysteries are always entertaining, filled with riveting characters, and beautifully plotted stories. Boyle and his supporting cast of characters are finely drawn and period correct and his dialog is often humorous. Billy Boyle is a Boston police detective turned Allied intelligence agent during World War II. He is distantly related to General Eisenhower and, as his name would suggest, is an old time Boston Irish cop.Death's Door (Billy Boyle World War II Mystery) is the seventh mystery in Benn’s historical series (after A Mortal Terror ). Boyle and Kaz, his Polish partner who is a count in exile, are ordered to Rome to investigate the death of an American monsignor in the neutral Vatican. The Death’s Door of the title is one of the five entrances to Saint Peter's Basilica. Wild Bill Donovan, head of the OSS, who would go on to found the CIA after the war, has assigned Boyle to the case. The fact that Vatican city sits in Nazi occupied Rome, and that Vatican City is a neutral state is only one obstacle that Boyle and Kaz must overcome.
At the time the story takes place, early 1944, the allied armies are bogged down in southern Italy and it is from there that Boyle and Kaz are smuggled into Rome and the Vatican disguised as priests. They are assisted by Lt. John Hamilton, the real-life pseudonym of the actor and author Sterling Hayden. That Hayden/Hamilton actually worked for Wild Bill Donovan and the OSS and later the CIA is only one of the marvelous historical facts that Benn peppers the story in. Hayden in actuality spent part of his undercover service sailing with supplies from Italy to Yugoslav partisans and parachuting into fascist Croatia so including him as the ships master smuggling Boyle into Rome was a great touch.
When Boyle accepts the assignment,he has ulterior motives. His lover, Diana Seaton, a British spy has been captured by the Nazis and is being held in Rome. If that isn’t distraction enough, once in the Vatican he must navigate the various political factions of the Catholic church – though neutral, there were staunch supporters of the Nazis as well as pro-allied factions – and he also finds that the Vatican is full of escaped POWs and other refugees from the German occupation including Jews, Gypsies, and British diplomats. Further, he must walk a fine line in maintaining the Vatican's neutrality lest the Nazis be given an excuse to invade.
Today most people assume that Vatican City has been an independent state for a millennium or more. In fact, it only became a separate entity from Italy in 1929. To give the reader an idea of just how small Vatican City is, it encompasses around 110 acres. In St. Peter’s Square, the border consists of a white line painted on the ground. According to the Lateran Treaty, certain properties of the Holy See that are located in Italian territory, most notably Castel Gandolfo and the major basilicas, enjoy extraterritorial status similar to that of foreign embassies.These properties, scattered all over Rome and Italy, house essential offices and institutions necessary to the character and mission of the Holy See. Castel Gandolfo and the named basilicas are patrolled internally by police agents of Vatican City State and not by Italian police. During WWII the fragile neutrality of The Vatican must be understood to under take any kind of understanding – and lay to rest some misconceptions of Pope Pius XII and the rest of the church – of the times and events. The threat of invasion, first by the Mussolini fascists, then by the Nazis was very real. The Pope did feel that The Vatican must remain strictly neutral. Unfortunately, he was often neutral by omission by not condemning the atrocities taking place in Europe. The killing of 1.8 million Catholic Poles or for that matter, the killing of another million by the Soviets either. As Benn points out in the Authors Notes, when he did speak out, the language was so circuitous as to be robbed of any real meaning. Because of these facts, history, or at least ‘popular history’ often paints Pius XII as a collaborator when a closer look actually acquits him of complicity in these crimes.
Some key historical characters that Benn makes use of in the novel are Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty who is one of Billy Boyle’s main contacts in the Vatican. O’Flaherty had set up an organization to hide an estimated 4,000 escaped POW’s and Jews, along with Italian antifascists. It is estimated that he also hid some 5,000 Roman Jews inside the Vatican and in church properties, including the Popes summer residence; Castel Gondolfo. Working along side the real-life O’Flaherty was Monsignor Monti who worked tirelessly to aid, feed and hide refuges. At the direction of Pius XII, he organized the Pontificia Commissione di Assistenza with the express purpose of assisting the refuges. In 1963 Monsignor Monti would become Pope Paul VI. These actions, as well as many others acquit the Pope, who in reality had very few options to remaining silent and still protecting the Vatican’s neutrality. Any invasion of the Vatican would have the immediate effect of turning over these refuges to Germans as well as removing any protection from all Catholics in reach of the Nazis.
Also key to the plot is Boyle joining forces with a Colonel Erich Remke of the German Abwehr (military intelligence) to communicate to the allies that the Abwehr were plotting the assassination of Hitler and they just wanted assurances that the allies wouldn’t take advantage of the resulting power vacuum to invade, but allow for an ordered surrender. Remke is fictional, but the plot against Hitler is very real and they did try and communicate this to the allies using the Vatican and Pope Pius.
Benn’s research is admirable and the expert way in which he uses this historical data to tell a riveting story is brilliant. The story has the feel of an old time adventure story, and Benn’s marvelous dialog bring the characters to life. If this is your first taste of James R. Benn and Billy Boyle, then I dare you not to read the other six novels. Historical Mysteries just don’t get any better than this.
Benn lives in Hadlyme, Connecticut, with his wife Deborah Mandel, a psychotherapist who offers many insights into the motivations of his characters. He’s a graduate of the University of Connecticut and a member of the Mystery Writers of America, and the Author's Guild.
Article first published as Book Review: Death’s Door: A Billy Boyle WWII Mystery by James R. Benn on Blogcritics.
Copyright © 2012 Robert Carraher All Rights Reserved