SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Reds and lovely readers, I'm delighted to introduce James R. Benn — Jim — author of the Billy Boyle series, set during World War II. I loved this series from the debut and eagerly await each new novel. In number ten, THE WHITE GHOST, the series moves to the Pacific Theater and pairs Boston Irish cop Billy Boyle with another Boston Irish boy — maybe you've heard of him? — John F. Kennedy.
Susan Elia MacNeal: Jim, your tenth book in the Billy Boyle series leaves the familiar ground of Europe in World War II for the Pacific Theater. What brings Billy to the South Pacific?
James R. Benn: It’s been a reader request for some time. I struggled with how to approach the notion, and finally came up with the idea of pairing two Boston Irish boys: Billy and John F. Kennedy. But when I started looking into how their timelines could intersect, I found that by May 1944, the date of the last book, JFK was already back in the States and discharged from the navy. I thought that idea was a no-go until I happened to notice a gap between the third and fourth books, several unexplained months which accorded nicely with the aftermath of the sinking of PT-109. Here’s how it’s explained in the forward to The White Ghost:
Astute readers may have noted Billy’s absence between the invasion of Sicily (Blood Alone), which occurred in July, 1943, and his appearance in Jerusalem in November 1943, before being sent on assignment to Northern Ireland, as recounted in Evil For Evil.
He was not idle during those months.
With the governmental veil of secrecy lifted, the events of 1943 immediately following Billy’s Sicilian assignment are chronicled here for the first time.
SEM: So Billy and Jack are both from Boston, both Irish boys. Are they good friends?
JRB: They once were; but one thing I learned about the Kennedy family is that friends were often viewed in light of what they could do for the Kennedys. Quite often, it was a one-way street. Jack Kennedy often treated his life-long friend Lem Billings terribly, and their interactions provided the backstory for Billy’s relationship with Jack. Billy’s family is working class Boston Irish; the Kennedys were what was called “lace curtain” Irish, meaning that they were working their way up the social ladder, leaving the shanty Irish behind.
SEM: There have been many stories about JFK’s father Joseph Kennedy Senior. For instance, that he was a rum-runner during Prohibition, and openly dated movie stars while married to his wife Rosemary. Did you find any of that to be true?
JRB: Whatever you’ve heard about Joe Senior – the truth is worse than that. The one thing that was never proven was that he made money smuggling alcohol into the US during Prohibition. He did own distilleries in Canada, and I can’t imagine a man like him passing up that sort of money-making opportunity. One thing is for certain; when his Harvard class reunion was held during the 1930s, he was tapped to provide the booze. He had his daughter Rosemary lobotomized, basically in an effort to control her unruly behavior. He did so without consulting his wife or discussing it with the family. This was in 1941, when the operation was still new and untested. Dr. James Watts and Dr. Walter Freeman performed the lobotomy. Watts used an instrument that looked like a butter knife, cutting brain tissue through a frontal incision. As Watts cut, Freeman put questions to Rosemary, asking her to recite the Lord’s Prayer or God Bless America. When she began to become incoherent, they stopped. She spent the rest of her life in a nursing home. Her mother did not visit her for twenty years. Her father never did, and never spoke of her again. That was the kind of environment in which Jack Kennedy grew up.
SEM: Are there other historical characters in this book? It seems like the Kennedys might well take center stage.
JRB: There were too many interesting characters in the Solomon Islands for that to happen. One was Merle Farland, a nursing sister who worked at a Methodist mission on Vella Lavella in the Solomons. When the Japanese invaded, most nurses were evacuated. She stayed on, working with Coastwatchers to give advance notice of Japanese raids. She was finally brought out with a B-17 crew she’d rescued, along with a group of Japanese prisoners. When she arrived at Tulagi, across the strait from Guadalcanal, her presence sparked a rumor that Amelia Earhart had been found. Having taken some fictional liberties with her story, the character’s name is Deanna Pendleton, for a young woman who won a character naming at a charity event.
SEM: I’m curious if the experience of researching and delving into the Kennedy family history has soured you at all on the Kennedy “mystique”?
JRB: I grew up with JFK on television, and felt the promise of all he had to offer. I think I do understand the character of John F. Kennedy better, and how in the crucible of war he found something deep and meaningful. It was a sobering and widening experience for this man of youthful privilege, and he did take what he learned to heart. I think I am more cynical about the entire family history, and see it as the political machine it always was. But JFK seemed to rise above much of that, and perhaps it was that wartime experience that brought out what could have been greatness.
Oddly enough, I did recently have an encounter with the Kennedy mystique. I was testifying at a Connecticut General Assembly hearing about public library funding, when a State Senator came to the podium to speak. It was Ted Kennedy Junior, who is currently serving in the state senate. He’s tall, good-looking, with that shock of Kennedy hair, and he spoke with passion.
He had me at “My name is Ted Kennedy Junior.”
SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Jim, thank you so much for joining us to talk about Billy Boyle, the publication of THE WHITE GHOST, and JFK. Reds and lovely readers, what are your thoughts on history and fiction intersecting in novels? What questions do you have for Jim about the Kennedys and their legacy?