Billy Boyle is still doing well…
James R Benn has one of the best premises for a mystery series that I’ve seen in a long time. Billy Boyle is an Irish-American cop from South Boston who’s not exactly thrilled at the idea of fighting on behalf of England. His family isn’t thrilled either, so his mom gets him a job on the staff of a Washington DC general who is married to her cousin. That ought to be safe, but unfortunately for Billy, that general turns out to be Dwight D Eisenhower, soon to be in charge of the Allied forces in Europe. Even more unfortunately for Billy, who had just made rank as a detective and doesn’t really have much (any) investigative experience, Ike needs someone to look into a murder or two or twenty. And Billy’s it.
I very much enjoyed reading the early books in this series back in “real paper book” days, before losing track of the series as I moved to reading e-books almost exclusively. So I was happy to receive a review copy of the latest book in the series, Road of Bones, and have a chance to check in and see how Billy is doing. And Billy is doing quite well. He’s still investigating wartime murders, as one-third of the three-person Office of Special Investigations at SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Forces). In Road of Bones, though, he’s asked to investigate a couple of murders at a Soviet-controlled airfield in Ukraine that is home-away-from-home to Allied planes carrying out shuttle-bombing raids (Operation Frantic) over Germany. And that comes with a few challenges, not the least of which is simply getting to Poltava Air Station.
As usual, Benn has done a wonderful job of mingling a meticulously researched background with a compelling mystery for Billy and his companions to solve. Road of Bones opens with Billy as a tag-along on one of the Operation Frantic raids, which SHAEF has decided is the quickest way to get its investigators to the site of the murders. And after the reading the first chapter, I certainly now have an appreciation for how terrifying these runs were for the bomber crews, and the fighter crews who accompanied them.
Once Billy arrives at Poltava, things quickly get messy. By this point in the war, 1944, it’s clear that the Soviet Union and the western Allies will be going their separate ways, so things are extra tense. Uncle Joe (Stalin) doesn’t provide enough support to defend the Allied planes on the ground in the Ukraine, and it’s also clear he has his eyes on occupying Poland at the end of the war, which makes things difficult for Kaz, the Polish member of the three-person OSI team. Perhaps the best part of the book, though, comes when Billy ends up on another raid while trying to rescue Big Mike, the third member of their team. This time Billy ends up flying with the Night Witches, an all-female Soviet squadron who flew in wooden planes, and would idle their engines as they neared their targets, to be able to approach undetectably. It’s a sequence I won’t forget.
Finally, I realize I haven’t talked much about the mystery itself in Road of Bones. But rest assured it’s a good one as well, as Billy is forced to work with a Soviet NKVD agent (and particularly doubtful character) from an earlier book to figure out some “supply chain” issues that led to the killings. I won’t say more to avoid spoilers. And of course, Billy and his team eventually resolve matters in an action-packed ending ranging from Ukraine to Iran. But really, for me, Road of Bones was almost more about the history than the mystery, although both are great, and folks reading primarily for the mystery won’t be disappointed. I try not to give too many five-star reviews, to try to avoid star-flation, but Road of Bones has earned one. And my thanks to Soho Crime for the review copy!