For new readers, the Billy Boyle books are set during WWII and feature an army captain, Billy, who investigates the murders that occur on the edges (or directly inside of) the war. It’s now 1944, and after giving Billy a bit of a break in the last book, The Red Horse, author James Benn plunges Billy and his sidekick Big Mike directly into the action. Road of Bones begins and ends with two bravura action scenes, a type of writing at which Benn excels. Action scenes can easily become dull or repetitive (to this crime reading veteran, anyway), but Benn is specific, descriptive in a concise way, and the pacing of his action scenes is perfection. The more I read, the more I think pacing is all, and Benn has the gift.
The opening scene is set inside a bomber seeing direct action. Billy is a passenger on the way to the USSR, but he steps in at one point, earning him the respect of the pilots on board. It’s kind of like the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan in its utter intensity and brutality. It’s the kind of scene that once you’re finished reading it, you need to give yourself a mental shake to be able to move on to the rest of the story.
The plane Big Mike was in has disappeared into the wilds of the USSR and while Billy is crazy to find him, there’s not much he can do about it at his new post, Poltova, where he’s to investigate the deaths of an American and a Russian soldier. The men were found side by side in the base warehouse, shot through the head with their own guns. The Russians would be pleased if Billy were to discover the culprit was American, and give him one of his old enemies, a Russian named Sidorov, to help him investigate.
As Sidorov had tried to frame Billy’s buddy Kaz for murder Billy doesn’t feel too kindly towards him, but he’s the translator and the connection to many of the Russian officers Billy must deal with. The two reach an uneasy truce, though it’s put to a test when Kaz arrives. Kaz, who had heart surgery in the last book, is still recovering, so he has gotten a gentler mode of transportation (not a bomber in action).
While Benn writes with all the detail of war – and this slice of the war seems especially grim and brutal – he also seems to have a love for the traditional village mystery, in his own way. Like Miss Marple, Billy often finds a solution by comparing the people he’s investigating in the present to some of the criminal types he encountered in the past as a beat cop back in Boston. It’s this type of parallel thinking that helps him to solve this complex crime.
There’s also his alter ego Kaz, the elegant, wealthy Pole who has lost his entire family to the Nazis. He has no love for the Russians and trusts no one in this situation. His worldliness is a nice contrast to Billy’s open hearted, almost optimistic, American, view of things. Between the two they illustrate the span of WWII and the heartbreak of it.
There’s a beautiful sequence toward the middle involving female Russian pilots, called the Night Witches. They flew light biplanes, turning off the engines before they attacked, making their bombing runs a total surprise to the enemy. The German soldiers thought the sound of the breeze through the struts of their planes sounded like broomsticks swishing through the air and called the women Nachthexen. Benn gives these brave women their due.
The action has two threads: Billy’s determination to locate Big Mike, and the murder investigation, which eventually finds all three men working together toward a solution. The mystery, a complex affair involving smuggling and a network of thieves and drug dealers (something that seems remarkably contemporary) winds up with another bravura action scene involving planes, trains, and boats. Benn also gives the reader a good look at the attitudes – and fear – in Stalinist Russia. This is a grim story but it’s not all grim – there’s a very smart mystery at the center, and there’s Billy, Kaz and Big Mike, a truly classic detection trio. This is another great read from a truly talented writer.