The First Wave: A Billy Boyle World War II Mystery by James R. Benn, his follow-up to Billy Boyle, continues the exploits and adventures of Boston-born, Irish-American Billy Boyle during World War II. Lieutenant Boyle comes from a police background, his father, uncle, and many other relatives having been cops, and Billy was also a policeman before joining the military. In this outing, Boyle goes ashore with the first wave of troops to liberate the Vichy French-occupied Algeria. Though still a “secret special investigator” on his Uncle Ike’s (General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s) staff, while between assignments, he’s working for Major Samuel Harding. Under fire from the Vichy troops, Billy and Harding’s job is to “make contact with friendly French officers” and accept the surrender of the Vichy French.
Changing plans is a constant during a war, however. The Vichy French had divided loyalties, some being Nazi supporters, some being in favor of a free France (though still having long-standing animosities towards the English) and wanting to assist the Allies to defeat the Nazis, and some who support whichever side seems to be winning at the time. Also, as in all wars, there are some who are involved in World War II for their own personal gains, wanting to get as much money out of their stint in the war as they can, whether legally or illegally, through activities such as smuggling, black market sales, and drugs. These types of crimes are what Uncle Ike has Boyle investigate. As initial plans change, Billy finds himself surrounded by these same types of crimes in France, as well as a series of murders Billy links to black-market activities. To further complicate matters, he has to try to rescue the girl he loves, Diana, a captured British spy, from the baddies.
The First Wave: A Billy Boyle World War II Mystery has a black-and-white, film noir-ish intensity and feel about it. I was reminded, while reading, of old war movies and Bogart films like The Maltese Falcon. I could picture the various characters and wandered to myself: “Who would Sidney Greenstreet play in this novel? Which villain might best showcase Peter Lorre’s distinctive voice and talents for portraying creepy individuals? Would Lauren Bacall be a good selection for Boyle’s love interest, Diana? Who’d be best to play Boyle himself, Bogart or Cagney?”
Though Billy Boyle isn’t fighting on the front lines, he sees more than his share of action in this book. Knocked unconscious several times, thrown into jail, witnessing bombing runs, and hot on the trail of black-market drug smugglers, it’s all in a day’s work for Boyle. Along for the ride are friends of Billy’s who appeared in the series’ first book, such as the Polish-born Baron Piotr Augustus Kazimierz (affectionately known as “Kaz”); Diana Seaton, the sister of Daphne, Kaz’s love interest in the first book who got killed; and Lieutenant Harry Dickinson, who blames Billy Boyle for the deaths of two of his men in the first novel, the destruction of his ship, and pretty much anything bad in his own life that follows from his past friendship with Boyle.
Morphine and the brand-new wonder drug penicillin are the drugs of choice for the black marketeers in this book. Captain Luc Villard and Captain Bissette, the two main villains, are self-serving people out to make money however they can, regardless of who might die as a result. They require a connection in the main field hospital, though, to go along with their plans, and they find one in the person of the American - but, no, I won’t reveal that detail. Much of the fun of reading a thriller/mystery is in trying to figure things out as you go, and in being surprised by twists in plot and the motivations of the characters as they’re revealed.
The First Wave: A Billy Boyle World War II Mystery is a novel that will appeal to fans of the first book, Billy Boyle, to those of us who can appreciate the beauty and intricate plots of classic black-and-white film noir flicks, and to lovers of good mysteries in general. In using language and expressions of the era, some of the characters may not seem to be politically correct by today’s standards; but those were different times and the people lived under far different circumstances. If you’re looking for a good historical mystery set in the World War Two era, you can’t go wrong with James R. Benn’s The First Wave .