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Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Death's Door


I have read as often, and as quickly, as I can for more than five decades now, but I realize that I am only scratching the surface of what is being published every year.  Keeping up is an impossible task – I know that.  How could I not when writers like James R. Benn come along every month or so to remind me how much good stuff is slipping through the cracks while I’m looking the other way?

Death’s Door is Benn’s seventh Billy Boyle WWII detective novel – seventh, and I am just now discovering the series and its author.  Thankfully, Death’s Door does work very well as a standalone for first-timers like me, although I imagine that readers of A Mortal Terror, the book immediately preceding this one, will have a big head start on those who have not read it.

Because Lieutenant Billy Boyle was a Boston cop when the war started, he is often called upon to solve crimes involving U.S. military personnel within the European Theater of Operations.  It does not hurt that he is the nephew of General Dwight D. Eisenhower and serves at Ike’s direction.  But this time around, Billy has a personal stake in the investigation.  His lover, British spy Diana Seaton, has been captured by the Germans and imprisoned in Rome’s infamous Regina Coeli prison.  Although Billy fears that she may have already been tortured and killed, he is determined to rescue her – or die trying.

As the book opens, Billy and his partner, Kaz (Lieutenant Piotr Augustus Kazimierz of the Polish Army in Exile), are desperately trying to get to the Vatican to begin their investigation of the murder of an American monsignor.  Because Regina Coeli is within walking distance of the Vatican, the murder investigation also gives Billy the perfect opportunity to rescue Diana if she is still alive.  The problem is that he has been given a direct order to stay away from the prison so as not to risk exposing the underground rescue efforts being conducted within Vatican walls. 

James R. Benn
Death’s Door is a good mystery, but it works even better as a piece of historical fiction.  The Vatican’s efforts to save the lives of Jews during WWII has often been criticized, and is a “gray area” of the war’s history even today.  Author Benn places Billy and Kaz inside a highly politicized environment in which little is what it first seems to be.  Some within the Vatican are pro-Allies, others pro-Nazi, and a few are really and truly neutral.  Unfortunately, it is not always easy to tell which are which. 

Complicating matters, the Vatican is officially a tiny piece of neutral territory surrounded by German-occupied Rome and the Pope fears anything that might give the Germans the excuse they need to enter the Vatican and remove him to “protective custody” somewhere in Germany.  Disguised as an Irish priest, Billy comes precariously close to giving the Germans that very excuse.

Part thriller, part mystery, part historical novel, Death’s Door is quite a well-written package.  Fans of those genres should not miss this one.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)
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