After we closed the store and my reading was slightly less proscribed by authors visiting or the latest new thing, I realized that one of the genres I truly love is historical mysteries. The range is so wide – in story telling style, in time period, in characters, and the armchair history lessons always, always add to my reading enjoyment. The fact that the books are set in the past makes the detective rely much more on old fashioned, golden age style sleuthing methods, another attraction, as far as I’m concerned. Thanks to Mystery Scene Magazine as well as my own reading, I find I read pretty widely in this subgenre. Here are my 10 favorites this year. One of them I liked so much it’s on my all around top 10 list (stay tuned!)
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.
James R. Benn continues to explore all the nooks and crannies of the mystery genre, keeping things fresh even in book 15 of this long lived and now beloved series. Main series character Billy Boyle started as a beat cop in Boston, learning the “job” from his father and uncles, who get him a (supposedly) soft wartime post with “Uncle Ike”. As any reader of this series knows, Billy becomes an investigator, finding the smaller crimes within the larger confines of WWII. Sometimes the war is front and center but Benn is always a meticulously detailed pure mystery writer, making his books a real pleasure to read.
I couldn’t keep it to 10 this year – can I ever? My taste does tend toward the traditional and historical fiction side of things, so that’s mostly reflected here. And a note: Kent Krueger’s This Tender Land, while not strictly a mystery, can definitely be enjoyed by his mystery loving fans. Quite simply, it’s the best book of 2019 of any variety, and I hope everyone reads it. I am looking to read it again myself.
There was lots to love this year! Some long-awaited returns (S.J. Rozan), some debuts (Melanie Golding, Allison Montclair, Jess Montgomery), some trying a different format or series (Ann Cleeves, Elly Griffiths), and of course some solid entries in already great series (Benn, Bowen, Jones, Massey, Shaber). Lots of great, passionate, spectacular writing. I love being a mystery reader!
James R. Benn, the creator of the Billy Boyle series, agreed to answer a few questions about his wonderful WWII set novels. His newest book, When Hell Struck Twelve, will be published in September.
Robin: How did you come up with the initial idea to have Billy be Eisenhower’s nephew?
Jim: I wanted to create a mechanism that would allow Billy Boyle to follow the course of the war in Europe (and beyond) and to be close to major events. Having him work out of Eisenhower’s headquarters gives him carte blanche to go anywhere I need him to go. The notion of his being Ike’s nephew provides the opportunity to humanize Eisenhower through their occasional interactions; it was also the mechanism to explain Billy’s ascendancy to the lofty realms of high command, since Uncle Ike wanted a trusted family member to run his investigations into low crimes in high places. The relationship also explains how a lowly lieutenant, later captain, can act with relative impunity within the chain of command.