Thursday, September 13, 2012
At DEATH'S DOOR: James Benn, WW II, intrigue in Vatican City
HALLIE EPHRON: I've been following James R. Benn's gritty thrillers featuring Billy Boyle (Billy's Irish and his uncle is Dwight D. Eisenhower) and set in World War II. His seventh in the series, Death's Door, tells a story of war and intrigue, dramatic conflict set within the neutral Vatican City - which was within Nazi-occupied Rome.
Welcome to Jungle Red, Jim! I just love the cover, and it has that period feel of all the covers in the series
JAMES R. BENN: This statue by Bernini was the inspiration for a rendevous between Billy and a German Abwehr agent, as shown on the cover of the book. This statue represents the Nile River, with a cloth drawn against the figures face to symbolize the unknown source of the Nile. I thought it the perfect place for secret agents to meet. A lot of deep research went into this, sitting in the Piazza, sipping wine. Tough work.
HALLIE: You poor guy. Trip to Rome schlepping your computer. Sipping coffee on the piazza. But seriously, it would have been quite a challenge for Billy inside those walls. How did you manage it?
JIM: Several years ago my publisher asked for a list of future book ideas. I’m not good at thinking that far ahead, so I jotted down a few thoughts and hoped they wouldn’t ask too many questions.
One idea was ‘Billy Boyle in the Vatican,’ and they kept asked when I was going to do that one. So I had to come up with something, but it wasn’t easy to get Billy there. In the timeline of the books, Rome is still under German occupation.
Looking around for a way in, I learned that the actor Sterling Hayden was an OSS agent in Italy during WWII, smuggling arms across the Adriatic to the Yugoslavian Partisans. Hayden used a fishing boat to evade German patrols, so I had Billy hitch a ride. Sterling Hayden almost stole the show. He was a real-life adventurer, his movie career probably the least important thing in his life.
I hope to see him again in a future novel; I’m even more committed to that idea now that I’ve learned he lived here in Lyme, Connecticut, not two miles from my house.
Is there a real "Death's Door" entrance to St. Peter's?
JIM: Yes! The leftmost door at the front of the Basilica is actually called the Door of Death, since it’s used only for funerals. It was too good to pass up.
So I have an American monsignor with political connections back home found murdered at the foot of Death’s Door, which was also an important location since in the 1940’s, the front of the Basilica marked the end of the Italian police jurisdiction. The location of the body then becomes very important in terms of who has responsibility for the investigation; the Vatican gendarmes or the Italian fascist police.
HALLIE: What was it like within the walls of the Vatican City during WWII?
JIM: It must have been surreal. Vatican City is only 110 acres, and held only a few hundred residents, all older men and a few nuns. As neutral territory, it became a haven for escaped Allied POWs, Italian anti-fascists, German deserters, Jews and anyone on the run from the Gestapo. Plus, as more and more nations declared war on the Axis, families from closed embassies came to the Vatican for asylum.
So very quickly, there were hundreds of people in hiding within the walls. Many of those were smuggled out and hidden throughout Rome, but the families from the South American embassies must have been a trial for clergy used to the peace and quiet of the Vatican gardens. The women and children made quite a racket.
There were so many escaped POWs entering Vatican territory after the fall of Mussolini that the Pope ordered the Swiss Guard to turn them away. But many of them were sympathetic to the soldiers on the run, and helped to hide them. I got the impression of a pressure-cooker atmosphere, with competing factions spying on each other constantly. Add it a severe shortage of food and coal for heating, and you have a desperate and volatile mix.
HALLIE: Sounds like THE perfect setting for a thriller
Your story involves issues regarding the Holocaust and what the Pope knew about it and what actions he perhaps should have taken. How did that play into the plot?
JIM: I came into the story with the assumption that Pope Pius XII did nothing, and was at least complicit by silence. I learned the truth is much more complex. He was in a no-win situation, surrounded by fascist Italy and then a brutal German occupation. He felt that only by a strict neutrality could he forestall a German take-over, which could have been done in about ten minutes.
One single fact stands out for me. Just this year, on July 1, 2012, the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Israel revised their assessment of Pius’ role, softening their previous criticisms, and acknowledging a number of secret rescue activities. I am always fascinated by the long reach of history, and that seven decades after World War II we are still learning new things about the moral challenges people faced.
HALLIE: You have several real-life characters, including the actor Sterling Hayden. What did he bring to the story?
JIM: An incredible vitality. His deep baritone voice kept echoing in my head as I wrote his scenes, and I had some trouble moving him off-stage. Billy nearly sailed off to Yugoslavia with him, and someday he just might.
Another real-life character was Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, an Irish priest who master-minded the smuggling of hundreds of people on the run from the Gestapo in and out of the Vatican. He was a larger-than-life guy, adept at disguises and escaping Gestapo assassins. Hundreds owe their lives to him. At the beginning of the war, he was very anti-British (like Billy) having lost family members to the Black and Tans during the Irish Civil War. But he overcame that once he saw what the Nazis were capable of, and worked closely with British POWs and the British ambassador to the Vatican.
HALLIE: Another real figure was Pietro Koch. He comes across as a violent psychopath. Is that an accurate representation?
JIM: Pietro Koch was an Austrian-Italian fascist with a taste for sadism. He enjoyed listening to the opera as he tortured his victims, often in the company of his Italian movie star lover, Maria Denis. He was called the most feared man in Rome, where he led a group called Banda Koch, made up of the worst of the fascist police and Nazis.
He was so violent and unpredictable that when he fled north after the fall of Rome, Mussolini himself ordered him arrested. That tells you something. After the war he was executed for his crimes. Ironically, in his photograph he looks almost gentle, with soulful dark eyes. You couldn’t make this guy up.
HALLIE: So, World War II buffs: Jim will be dropping by all day to take your comments and questions. Please, join the discussion!