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Solemn Graves by James R. Benn - book review

Solemn Graves by James R. Benn
Solemn Graves by James R. Benn

Trickery, duplicity, blackmail, and ‘collaboration horizontale’ are some of the themes explored in the latest, thought-provoking instalment in acclaimed American author James R. Benn’s popular wartime mystery series.

Cleverly weaving fact and fiction, Benn’s long-running series set during the Second World War, continues to catapult the charismatic Irish-American hero, Captain Billy Boyle, to exciting locations, and to spotlight lesser-known Allied operations.

In Solemn Graves, his thirteenth adventure set in the summer of 1944, the Boston detective turned U.S. Army investigator assigned sensitive WWII military investigations by his ‘uncle’ General Eisenhower, journeys to a farmhouse near the town of Trévières in Normandy to investigate the murder of an American officer.

The late Major David Jerome, commanding officer of the Signals Company, Second Armored Division, was found with his throat cut in a chateau where the battalion HQ is set up. A large puddle of liquor and three broken glasses with morphine residue in one of them suggest the murder was premeditated.. the killer spiked Jerome’s drink before severing his carotid arteries.

Aided by his usual buddies, Staff Sergeant ‘Big Mike’ Miecznikowski and Lieutenant Piotr ‘Kaz’ Kazimierz, military sleuth Billy Boyle attempts to get to the bottom of the puzzling crime.

Unfortunately, the crime scene offers up few clues and few witnesses, except for the ‘haunted, fragile, ethereal beauty’ Yvonne Virot who discovered the dead body. Yvonne, whose dress is stained with Jerome’s blood, is a house guest of wealthy widow Madame Regine Janvier, owner of the property and a former French Resistance agent.

The trauma Yvonne has suffered at the hands of the Germans has resulted in her becoming mute, and so she can offer little to help Boyle’s investigation.

Other figures in the small community are suspiciously tight-lipped and equally unhelpful, and by far the most dubious character of all is Claude Legrand, a liaison with the Resistance who is actively involved in killing and torturing suspected German collaborators.

A brutal scene in the cobblestoned streets of Bricqueville depicts him giving the order to shave the heads of women accused of having had romantic relations with Germans.

While the sadistic townspeople watch and cheer, Boyle observes grimly how although ‘we all like to think we’re better than the enemy,’ the dividing line between the two sides has become disappointingly muddied.

Feeling like he’s getting nowhere with his investigation, Boyle and company head out in search of the

Second Armored Division, and, having forced their way into a restricted area, they witness two soldiers lift a tank off the ground with their bare hands.

The tanks, we discover, are ‘not Shermans made from thirty-four tons of Detroit steel’ but ‘rubber blowups,’ and Boyle learns he has stumbled onto the location of a top-secret Allied Army tactical deception unit, referred to as the ‘Ghost Army.’

Consisting of ‘a bunch of artists, designers, magicians, sound engineers, and con men,’ their role is to put on a performance through the use of props, sound effects, and tremendous flash-bang illusions, to deceive the Germans and then vanish once the show is over.

With an attack planned by the Allies, and an urgent need to keep Ghost Army a secret to aid the operation, the fate of eight hundred soldiers hangs in the balance. It’s up to Boyle to solve the murder and determine if the Germans are onto the scheme.

As usual, Benn crafts a highly entertaining murder mystery, as well as eloquently reflecting on the horrors of war and bringing to light less discussed wartime incidents, such as the brutal punishment inflicted on women during the épuration légale (wild purge).

Solemn Graves is another must-read entry in the outstanding Billy Boyle Second World War mysteries, offering fascinating details about the unique, thousand-man military unit known as the Ghost Army whose courageous acts of tactical deception are estimated to have saved tens of thousands of soldier’s lives.

Long may Boyle’s gripping adventures continue.

(Soho Crime, hardcover, £22.99)