Thursday, 21 September 2023

Author James R. Benn

Proud Sorrows is the 18th novel in James R. Benn’s Billy Boyle series. Set during WWII, the series features U.S. Army Captain Billy, the nephew of Dwight Eisenhower, who is sent all over the place on special assignment by his uncle. Benn’s meticulously plotted and suspenseful books are always full of historical detail and character development with a great mystery at the center. In Proud Sorrows Billy is, theoretically, getting some much needed R & R with his sweetheart Diana, though what he actually gets, of course, is a mystery. A crashed German bomber is found off the coast with a British officer inside, and the discovery sets off further murder and trouble for the military and the small English village nearby.

Read on to hear about Benn's inspiration for his new novel, a fascinating amalgam of Dorothy L. Sayers, ghostly fighter planes, and lost treasure, plus a sneak peek and what's to come in installment 19.

Robin Agnew for Mystery Scene: This series has such an interesting and unusual premise, and it gives you latitude to look at a lot of different aspects of WWII. How did you come up with the concept of Eisenhower’s nephew as your main character?

James Benn: When I was planning out the first book, I wanted exactly the kind of latitude you bring up. Having Ike be Billy’s uncle, as well as superior, allowed me to send Billy anywhere General Eisenhower wanted him to go. That also gave a junior officer a lot of authority, and I enjoy the tension that brings when Billy encounters senior brass who resent his interference. And having a familial connection provides important texture to the relationship. In the first few books especially, Billy is driven by a desire not to disappoint Uncle Ike.

Dorothy L. Sayers I recently read your essay on Dorothy L. Sayers and the influence she’s had on your work. Can you talk about that influence in this novel, which is truly a village mystery?

DLS brought me into the crime fiction universe. When I decided to give Billy and company some leave (finally!), I decided it made sense to bring them to Sir Richard’s Seaton Manor. But I’d forgotten where I’d placed it, so I had to go back to the first book and look it up. Lo and behold, it was smack dab in The Nine Tailors country of Dorothy L. Sayers. She grew up there, and it was the setting of one of the best Lord Peter Wimsey stories. So her ethos became part of the book, and even more so when I discovered that, historically, the actor (and then captain in the Royal Armoured Corps) Ian Carmichael could be inserted into the plot. What more can a mystery writer ask for?

In your book a character suffers from what we today would acknowledge as PTSD. How was that kind of thing dealt with (or not) in the '40s?

Much better in the 1940s of WWII than in the First World War. The character is the only man in the village to have come back from the trenches of 1918, and he is likely to have received no medical care while in the service. The British had a category for men who suffered from what was then called "shell shock"—it was LMF (lacking moral fiber).

This novel centers on a very particular geographical location, which, thanks to the tides, reveals the wreckage of the fighter plane at the heart of the mystery. Can you talk a bit about the inspiration for both the wreckage and the location?

I’d long been fascinated by the Maid of Harlech, an American fighter plane that crashed off the coast of Wales. Over the decades, it has appeared and then disappeared as the sands and tides washed over it. I’d tucked that away to use and decided this was the book for it, but I had to shift the location to the east coast of England, in Norfolk, at one end of the Wash.

The Wash is a tidal estuary with strong, swift tides, even better at burying and revealing an airplane. When I realized I had Seaton Manor located close by, I knew I had the makings of a story. In my tale, it’s a German bomber, and what is found inside kicks off the mystery.

You also reference missing crown jewels, dating back to King John. What’s the story there? What should readers know about it?

Most people probably don’t. King John (the bad king from the Robin Hood tales) was putting down revolts, and traveling, as monarchs did in those days, with his crown jewels. That treasure included not only his crown and jewels, but gold goblets, crosses, and other valuables. He was in a hurry and decided to use a shortcut across the Wash when the tide was out. His guides miscalculated, and the baggage train, treasure, and men, were swept away. People are still hunting for it.

I thought the relationship between Billy and his love interest Diana is interesting in this novel. They’re actually getting to spend time together after being apart—and it does not go so smoothly. Tell us more about about this developing friendship/romance?

I’m trying to develop a realistic love story here, and it is difficult for them to see a vision for their future together now that the war seems to be nearing its final stages. Will Billy stay in England? Would Diana be happy in Southie? Earlier on, when they were living on a knife’s edge, it was easy to be passionate. Now they have to deal with the notion that they might just both survive. Then what?

Was there really a camp for high-ranking Nazi officers in King’s Lynn in West Norfolk, England? I know the British had prisoners of war, but reading about this camp was something new to me.

No, the facility at Marston Hall is fictional, but the interrogations that went on there are realistic and were found in POW camps everywhere. The Ritchie Boys were experts at playing the Germans, using psychological tricks and intimidations.

I loved the character of the local village vicar, who is really be well placed as far as knowing people’s secrets were concerned. He's such an interesting and compassionate character. Can you talk more about creating him?

I’ve had a number of secondary characters, like the vicar, who are staying on in their jobs beyond normal retirement because of the shortage of younger men, all off to war. He presented himself to me draped in melancholy, doing his best to serve his flock while not always approving of how they treated each other. (As shown at the funeral of David Archer.)

I love the way you’ve managed this long series, maintaining the same essential cast of characters, but keeping the books really fresh. What’s your method? How do you keep changing things up?

I try to vary the setting and theme of each book. I don’t want back-to-back books to be too much alike. I hope regular readers enjoy the change of pace and have a feel for exploring something new with the characters they’ve come to know. I think in a long-running series, readers want the familiar, but presented in new way. The same stuff, but different, each time. Tricky, that.

Do you have a favorite character in the series other than Billy? I am a fan of Big Mike, myself.

He’s so much fun. I won’t name favorites, not even Billy, but sometimes it’s the supporting characters who are the most fun to write. I just finished next year’s book, Phantom, which features David Niven. He almost stole the show.

NARA Archives Battle of the Bulge 1944

Photograph of The Battle of the Bulge, December 16, 1944, taken from a captured Nazi. (Later changed to Public domain based on NARA archives.) Original version at NARA:


What’s next for Billy and Kaz? Are they headed back into battle or on another dangerous assignment?

In Phantom (2024) they are in Paris working with the Monuments Men and a Counter Intelligence Corps agent named Jerome David Salinger. They’re on the trail of a gang trafficking in looted artwork, and while following leads near the front line, come into contact with a German offensive: the Battle of the Bulge.

What’s the most fun for you to write, suspense, battle scenes, character interactions...or all three? You excel at all of them.

Thank you. All are easy when I’m in the flow and have a strong sense of where the story is taking me. All are laborious when I’m struggling to put the pieces together.

Finally, hard question—do you have a favorite book in the series to date, or is it always the one you’ve just finished?

It’s definitely not the one I’m working on, because I am always positive that this is the one that’s going to fall apart and make no sense. I can’t save favorite, but the most recent always holds the most promise, so I’ll go with that.

Thanks so much for allowing me to blather on about all things Billy!

James R. Benn is the author of the Billy Boyle WWII mysteries. He has been a finalist for the Dilys, Barry, and Macavity awards. He lives on the Gulf Coast of Florida with his wife, Deborah Mandel, a retired psychotherapist who currently works as a copy editor and writer who offers him many insights, a good critical read, and much else. He’s a graduate of the University of Connecticut and received his MLS degree from Southern Connecticut State University. He is a member of the Mystery Writers of America and the Author's Guild. He worked in the library and information technology fields for over 35 years before retiring to write full-time.

Robin AgnewRobin Agnew is a longtime Mystery Scene contributor and was the owner of Aunt Agatha's bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for 26 years. No longer a brick and mortar store, Aunt Agatha has an extensive used book collection is available at and the site is home to more of Robin's writing.


James R. Benn Finally Gives Boyle a Rest in "Proud Sorrows"—Well, Sort of
Robin Agnew
Monday, 14 August 2023

The Puzzle at Blackstone Lodge by Martin Edwards
The Puzzle of Blackstone Lodge
by Martin Edwards
Poisoned Pen Press, August 2023, $16.99 trade paperback

In 1606 Yorkshire, England, a man vanishes from a locked room. More than 300 years later, it happens again!

In author Martin Edwards third Rachel Savernake Golden Age mystery, Fleet Street journalist Nell Fagan heads out to the dank and grim English countryside, hoping to regain her reputation as a reporter by reporting on a series of deaths at a local sanatorium. While there, Nell stays at the infamous lodge where the mysterious disappearances occurred, one in 1606 and the second 300 years later.

The reporter tries to interest Rachel Savernake in helping her search for the truth, but Rachel is reluctant—Nell has lied to her before. Nell continues looking into things on her own, but when a possible attempt is made on her life, she tries again to get Rachel's help. But then, Nell disappears.

Now fully engaged in finding out what Nell was investigating and how it might've led to her disappearance, Rachel and her chosen compatriots find themselves in Yorkshire—and with no shortage of potential suspects for the suspicious sanatorium deaths and Nell's disappearance.

Is it the reclusive neighbor that holds himself apart from the rest of the townsfolk? The brutish parish rector who displays no mercy or compassion towards anyone, including his increasingly skittish and unstable wife? What secrets does the family that runs the sanatorium hold? Is the friendly town doctor somehow involved in all the goings-on? What's the story with the old and decidedly unfriendly woman staying at the local hotel?

Rachel, her journalist friend Jacob Flint, and her other allies find themselves tested to find out the truth of all matters. Especially as they attempt to stay one step ahead of a cunning killer who will stop at nothing to keep secrets from coming to light.

Author Martin Edwards does a phenomenal job of making the reader feel as if they are in the English countryside of the 1930s. The densely written descriptions of the various locations fuel the imagination, giving readers the sense of time and place, from the dark and foreboding moors to the interactions of the characters from various stations of the English class system. And just when you think you know where things are going, he skillfully plays with those expectations, yet keeps you glued to the page to see where the story is going next.

The way Edwards draws you into the plot with the reporter Nell Fagan before fully involving Rachel Savernake is a nice touch. As for Savernake herself, she's an intriguing figure to say the least. There's a bit of a Holmesian touch to her observations and attitudes, but the writer does a great job of moving Rachel beyond a simple homage to The Great Detective and making her come to life as a fully realized character in her own right. I also greatly enjoyed the character of Jacob Flint who is unwillingly drawn into the story through his friendships with both Nell and Rachel. Flint has his own subplot involving a fake medium, but between that and his assistance to Rachel, the character comes to acquit himself quite nicely.

With murder, disappearances, and any number of hidden motives, betrayals, and deadly secrets, The Puzzle of Blackstone Lodge is sure to galvanize mystery readers into becoming fans of Rachel Savernake and set about clamoring for more of her adventures.

Review: "The Puzzle of Blackstone Lodge" by Martin Edwards
Jay Roberts
Monday, 07 August 2023

Dead and Gone by Joanna Schauffhausen

Dead and Gone
by Joanna Schauffhausen
Minotaur Books, August 2023, $28

In author Joanna Schaffhausen's third Annalisa Vega thriller, the Chicago police detective finds herself investigating the mysterious death of Sam Tran, a former cop-turned-PI. Annalisa's investigation takes a surprising turn when the dead man's phone starts ringing—and on the other end is her brother Vinny! Having sent one brother to jail for murder and getting her father confined to house arrest for covering that crime up, Annalisa isn't exactly the most popular member of her family or with her fellow cops. So the last thing she needs is another family member mixed up in one of her cases.

As it turns out, Vinny had hired Tran to investigate a possible stalker targeting his daughter, Quinn. But nothing had come of the investigation so far. As Annalisa and her partner Nick dig into the case, they find themselves looking at Tran's open cases for possible motives for his murder. As they search, the detective duo find themselves turning up questions—and answers—to Tran's cases as well. As they follow each successive clue, they learn that Quinn just might have a stalker after all. And when another coed goes missing, the heat is on. Stymied by a lack of jurisdiction on the college campus, there is little they can do in an official capacity though.

In order to protect her niece and track down Sam's killer, Annalisa is determined to bring a crazed killer to justice. But will it be in time to stop any more bodies from falling, or will she be faced with losing more of her family?

There are a lot of individual story elements for readers to follow in Dead and Gone. With so many disparate plotlines, the writer risks giving short shrift to some of them so that things can eventually tie together as the reader comes to the story's resolution. But Schaffhausen does a masterful job of weaving each of her separate plots together. Readers will be amazed how tightly woven the overall complexity of the narrative turns out to be.

Annalisa is dealing not only with a bunch of crimes to investigate, but also the upheaval in her personal life. From feeling exiled from her family to potential changes for her on the most intimate of levels, the detective has a lot on her plate. But it is her headstrong determination to bring justice to the victim(s) of this story that will leave readers breathless as they read each successive chapter.

Schaffhausen's Dead and Gone is a race through dark places that propels mystery fans toward a shocking conclusion. Excellent plotting and rich characterization make this one of the most singularly entertaining thrillers of the year.

Review: "Dead and Gone" by Joanna Schauffhausen
Jay Roberts