When brainstorming ideas for upcoming Ultimate Reading Challenge tasks, one of the toughest to figure out was “Read a never-before-read genre”. I like to think that I’m pretty adventurous with my reading choices, which is normally a good thing. But when I have to figure out a new genre to test drive? There aren’t too many options left to work with. I definitely wasn’t doing a horror novel, and I didn’t really enjoy the western I tried for my first attempt at this challenge. Eventually, I found success by narrowing my search. “Mystery” was too broad- but how about a murder mystery?
I haven’t read any murder mysteries before because I’m not really a fan of mysteries to begin with. I’d rather be pulled along on a wild ride and discover the culprit’s identity during the climax than analyze every character’s actions to try to figure it out beforehand. My frequent failure to correctly guess the culprit in mystery movies likely has something to do with my avoidance of the genre as well. And of course with murder mysteries, there’s the whole murder issue. I like happy stories- murder is the opposite of what I’m going for. Despite my hesitations, the entire point of the Ultimate Reading Challenge is to get out of my comfort zone, not stick to what I’m used to. Luckily, I was able to find a great entry in the murder mystery genre which had a good balance between uncharted territory and familiar waters. I don’t think I could have found a better first taste of this genre than with the first book in James R. Benn’s Billy Boyle World War Two Mysteries series, Billy Boyle.
Billy Boyle by James R. Benn:
As luck would have it, Goodreads decided to point me in the direction of a murder mystery series set during World War 2 called Billy Boyle World War 2 Mysteries. The protagonist (Billy Boyle) is a former Boston cop whose mother manages to get him assigned to a desk job in London at the headquarters of a distant relative. It turns out that Billy’s “Uncle Ike” is none other than General Dwight D. Eisenhower, and he wants Billy to become his personal investigator. In Book 1 Billy, who served only briefly as a detective on the force before being sent overseas, is out of his depth as he finds himself leading an investigation into a Norwegian officer’s murder. Backed by his newfound friends, Billy has to learn fast in order to chase down a killer, unmask a spy, and deliver justice.
One of the things I liked about this book was the fact that Billy’s character was portrayed as a rookie. Sherlock Holmes has earned his reputation through plenty of experience and well-established connections. Billy, on the other hand, is a Yankee officer who has limited experience with detective work, especially in the unfamiliar landscape of wartime England. That’s not to say that Billy doesn’t have the makings of a good detective- he was trained for years by his homicide investigator father and extended family on the force- , just that he’s been sent out before he’s ready without experienced allies to turn to when he gets stuck. Since Billy has to learn on the job, it makes it easier on the reader because we know that we’re no farther ahead than he is. Then later, as he develops his skills and becomes more confident, so too do we.
Billy, his suspects, and his new friends form the heart of this book, but I think that the framework is what really pulls it all together. The historical context of Billy Boyle adds depth to the plot, but more importantly ensures that there’s more to the book than the characters and their motives. The plot of Book 1 is inspired by Operation Jupiter, a scrapped invasion of Norway whose plans were leaked in order to trick Germany into removing troops from the front lines and sending them to Norway to sit around waiting for an invasion that would never come. This, similar to the deception campaigns created to lead German troops away from Normandy on D-Day, ensured that Allied troops had a greater chance of success in combat against smaller enemy forces. Using Operation Jupiter as a main plot point makes it much more difficult for Billy to do his job, and therefore creates a more entertaining plot. Several higher-ranking officers were seen outside around the time of the body’s discovery, but lied when questioned about it- were they the murderers, or sworn to secrecy about an invasion-related task they were completing? A Norwegian commando acts weirdly when asked about his recent missions- is he hiding something, or is Billy’s lack of knowledge about Norwegian culture the cause of this misunderstanding? Insert the Home Guard, the SOE, the WRNS (Women’s Royal Naval Service), and the general views held by British citizens towards Americans at the time, and you have a rich plot that’s all the more plausible because every group involved were taken from real life. I like to learn about lesser-known aspects of World War 2, so the setting, along with the other elements of Billy Boyle mentioned above, made my first introduction to a murder mystery a very satisfying and entertaining one.
Though I remained unsuccessful in correctly identifying the killer before the reveal, I’m excited to keep reading the Billy Boyle World War Two Mysteries series and see whether I get any better with practice. Since there are 16(!) more books in the series to date, I’ll have lots of opportunities to improve my skills! Aside from Billy Boyle, I’m not sure if I’ll continue exploring the murder mystery genre. Mysteries aren’t my favourite to begin with, so having to read about various people being murdered over and over will likely soon wear thin. However, as with books of every genre, the premise is everything. I won’t make a habit of reading murder mysteries, but I just might be swayed every now and then! Besides, I can’t put books like Murder on the Orient Express to the test and decide whether I think they’re worthy of being called classics if I don’t actually read them. The long and the short of it is that I’m not sure where I stand on murder mysteries. At least now I can say that I’ve read one! For now, though, I think I’ll stick to romance and historical fiction.