Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Evil for Evil: James R. Benn

ROBERTA: Here's an embarrassing story about today's guest. Several years ago, he approached me wondering if I would read and blurb his first book before publication. I decided I had to be honest: I just don't enjoy historical mysteries that much, especially war stories. Jim was most gracious about my refusal and we've gone on to become friends. And his World War II mysteries featuring the appealing protagonist Billy Boyle have become a huge success. Welcome Jim!

JIM: Thanks, Roberta. Embarrassing perhaps, but that story also illuminates a problem inherent in writing a mystery set within the Allied high command during World War II. Many readers start off with same comment as yours; that “war stories” are not their cup of tea. The first thing that often occurs to people is that it must be a “shot-‘em-up” series. But what I am trying to explore is the overall emotional effect on my character of going to war; everything from being uprooted from his family to confronting death. In all four books, there is only one actual battle scene—in BLOOD ALONE, where Billy is swept up in defense of a Sicilian beachhead—otherwise, the gunplay involves the other enemy, those villains who seek to profit from war’s misery.

Why World War II?

JIM: I’m part of the generation that grew up with a father who had been to that war. It’s been ever present in my life, all mixed up with father-son relationships, so it’s no surprise that Billy’s father plays a role. He’s at a remembered distance, but his influence is still felt. Every time Billy gets into a fix, he tries to recall the advice and training his dad gave him. As with many sons, he didn’t pay attention at the time, and later on wishes he had. The Second World War in Europe also offers a tremendous tapestry of stories, ranging from the heroic to the desperately foolish. I try to find an interesting historical situation and wrap a fictional mystery around it, in order to bring it to light and look at it in what I hope is a fresh way.

ROBERTA: Tell us about Billy Boyle and where you see his career heading?

JIM: Billy is part of an extended Irish-American family in Boston. The men are cops and watch out for each other. Family loyalty is key to the Boyles, as is loyalty to the cause of Irish nationalism. They are no friends of the British Empire, and after one of the brothers was killed in the First World War, the surviving brothers vowed no Boyle would ever again die in any cause joined with the English. So when the Second World War comes around, they finagle their political connections to get Billy appointed to the staff of a distant relative in Washington DC; an obscure general named Dwight David something. But instead of a safe sinecure, Billy is sent off with “Uncle Ike” to be his personal investigator. Not what the Boyles bargained for. Right now, I’m focusing on his career leading up to D-Day. Not much beyond that. People do ask about going home to Boston, but I can’t see that far ahead. Although it might be interesting to keep him in post-war Berlin for a while….

How did Billy end up in Ireland in the current book?

JIM: In EVIL FOR EVIL, I had the British ask Eisenhower to loan them Billy to investigate links between the IRA and the Germans in Northern Ireland (which actually occurred). This presented Billy with his greatest challenge, to investigate the heroes of his youth, as a (reluctant) agent of the British. He uncovered more than he (or I) wanted to know about the brutalities carried out by both sides in that conflict. At one point he says “I wish God hadn’t given me the sense to see both sides of a thing.” That pretty well sums it up.

ROBERTA: What's been the most interesting part of being a published author?

JIM: The readers. The way people get swept up in this universe of characters that you’ve created. They are real enough in my mind, but to see them through the vision of the readers is a real gift. I’ve had a number of people thank me recently for something very specific; “hours and hours of pleasure”. It’s not often you can give that to a perfect stranger!

As a psychologist, I'm interested in your comment on the website about how your psychotherapist wife helps you puzzle out character motivation. Can you give us some examples?

JIM: She helps with the male-female dynamic and crafting dialog when it has emotional content. Specifically, she helped me understand the effects of a particular kind of amnesia (in BLOOD ALONE). She works a lot with trauma survivors, and for the recently completed RAG AND BONE (2010) she gave feedback on appropriate behaviors for a character with PTSD (shell shock back then). For the book I’m working on now (for 2011 release) she has helped me with an understanding of the psychopathic personality. It’s an interesting process, to talk with a current practitioner, but to then consult texts (such as THE MASK OF SANITY) and revert to 1940’s language and understanding..

ROBERTA: Wow, she's a real resource. Maybe we'll have her on as a guest:). What's up next?

JIM: A research trip in December to Rome and Anzio. The 2011 book, tentatively titled THE KILLING GAME, takes place within the Anzio beachhead south of Rome. A psychopathic killer on the loose in the midst of a deadly battle. Not that there were any restaurants open in the Anzio area back then, but we will research Italian food and wine as well. Billy does like a good meal when he can get it.

Don't we all! Thanks for stopping in today and best of luck with Evil for Evil!


  1. Hey Jim!Great to see you here..

    and you do have the BEST covers! Incredibly evocative and of the time.

    Yes, my Dad was in the Battle of the Bulge, taken prisoner and walked miles in bare feet through the snow. Got a purple heart. (He told me he carried a paperback book of poems with him the whole time "to remind me that there is beauty in the world.")

    Part of what is so wonderful about your books is keeping those times real and the memories alive- disturbing and scary as many of them are.

    Blurb story: a famous-author pal of mine who will remain nameless (not a member of this blog!) was asked to blurb a book--and she turned it down, saying she didn't have the time. (Which was kind of true, but she also thought the book just didn't sound good.) They said they really wanted her, and the blurb would be on the cover. Nope, sorry, she said, I just don't have time.

    The book was Water for Elephants.

    (I'm not quite sure what the lesson is, or if there is one...)

  2. What fascinated me about this book was your portrayal of Northern Ireland as seen through the eyes of a brash young man from Southie with torn loyalties. Who IS the enemy?

    I do hope it's made into a movie because this one's filled with great roles.

  3. Hi Jim:
    I'm one of the ones who did blurb one of your books and enjoyed it very much. Such a different take on WWII. And Billy Boyle is an appealing character.

    But I do appreciate the reluctance to blurb. I'm asked to do it all the time. Usually I say no these days unless the writer is known to me or I am asked to do it through my publisher.
    a) I don't have time to read all those books and b) I don't want to put myself in the embarrassming position of having to say I didn't like the book.
    And following the Water for Elephants story--I once blurbed a book and when it came out my name and quote on the cover were bigger than the writer's. Great publicity, and the book was good, so I wasn't compromising myself.

  4. Hopefully Jim will still be kind to me when he really hits the big time. Like will we at Jungle Red get tickets to the Oscars when his movie is up for best???

    My dad was in WWII as well. Honestly, that couple of years overshadowed everything else in his life. Right up until a couple of years ago, his company still held reunions and talked about their experience in the war. (He was an engineer.) He's not able to read at this point, but I'm going to print out your interview and send it off to him.

  5. Hi Jim,
    I'm the opposite of Roberta. You say World War II and I'm immediately in!!!

    I am fascinated by almost everything about World War II (except those tactical military diagrams) and am planning a trip to Normandy Beach.

    And Hank, I can't wait to get more details on your father. I did a paper in sixth grade on the Battle of the Bulge and have seen every single documentary on it.


  6. Hank - Do you have any idea what book of poems it was? Very interesting. Next year's book (RAG AND BONE - title taken from a Yeats poem) will feature a fair bit of WWI poetry folded into the plot. Siegfried Sassoon and those fellows.

    Jan - Enjoy Normandy. I hope folks of French ancestry aren't offended, but it was wonderful to travel in a part of France where the people actually like Americans. Quite a notable difference. Have some Calvados for me!

    Tickets for the Premiere for all!

    Thanks for the chance to participate,


  7. But Jan, I did love our trip to Normandy a couple of years ago. The cemetery was one of the most moving sights I've ever seen. As you walk up to the monument, the Marine battle hymn is playing. All of us had tears in our eyes...

    Thanks for coming to visit Jim!