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?

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!


  1. Oh boy, another series of books to add to my TBR list! I think I will love these. Thank you!

    James, you had me with the Bernini Fountain. The Piazza Navona is one of my favorite spots in Rome. When I was there as a teenager in the late 60s, my uncle was a priest assigned to the Curia. He took me to the Piazza and told me the story of Bernini and Borromini (?), rivals for design of the statue. Bernini was given the role of designing it and Borromini designed the church of St Agnes in front of it. One of Bernini's figures has his hand it front of his eyes, hiding the church from his view. I love that!

    I'm looking forward to these books. I love this time period.

    Thanks for the interview.

  2. Wow--this is fascinating! Welcome, Jim.

    ANd MArianne--that's so great! I remember hearing that story, too...when we were there. I think I was having a coconut gelato to at the time.

    Jim--how do you decide what to keep as authentic and what to fictionalize? And wow, this book sounds terrific.

  3. Both my husband and I have enjoyed following Billy’s adventures and “At Death’s Door” sounds especially intriguing. Including real-life characters such as Sterling Hayden [who served in the military under the pseudonym of John Hamilton] and Monsignor O’Flaherty and their actions should provide a truly gritty realism . . . the description of Pietro Koch gives me shivers --- he’s a perfect villain, and it’s horrifying to know he was a real person who actually carried out unspeakable atrocities. There is indeed a “long reach of history,” and often its secrets are jealously guarded long past the events of the time.

  4. What a fascinating setup at The Vatican -- all those different people on the run, hiding there. And the Sterling Hayden angle is very marketable, IMHO, maybe get you and the book some air time. I've been attracted by the covers for a while, but I have so little time to read I've never picked one up. This blog and Hallie's recommendation should get me to click the buy button.

    Two related questions James: Would you call DEATH'S DOOR a cozy, with most of the violence off the page? Why does Hallie call your work "gritty," do you think?

  5. Wow, Jim.

    My husband and I, both World War II buffs, always joke about finding that "one aspect of WWII that we haven't seen all the documentaries on."

    THis is it. I, too, thought the Vatican was somehow complicit, (something to do with Pope John Paul's apology, I think), and didn't realize the Vatican was a haven, at least for some to escape the fascists.

    This book sounds terrific.

  6. Welcome, James! This sounds so fascinating! I had no idea the Vatican had become this refuge during the war with such a pressure-cooker atmosphere. And Sterling Hayden (who was everything Hemingway wanted to be and wasn't)! Be still, my heart!

    I'm really looking forward to reading the book.

  7. Jim, your books sound fabulous! I love the period, and the set-up for this one is irresistible. In fact, I'm going to go buy it now...

    Linda, I love your comment about Sterling Hayden being everything Hemingway wanted to be. Priceless.

    Oh, and Jim, I love your covers. Such a wonderfully noir graphic look.

  8. Thanks for the comments, folks. Gratifying after the tough research for this one, sipping espressos, wine and eating gelato while waiting for inspiration in Piazza Navona (truly a wonderful spot).

    As for the cozy question - I can't really see it, but some bloggers have said that. Although in this book, early on in the process of smuggling Billy and Kaz into Rome, there is an encounter with a Fascist officer that is the opposite of cozy. For that, I was inspired by the Hitchcock film (I think) where Paul Newman had to kill a man with his bare hands (spy film, perhaps?) and it was very difficult to do. Not the stuff of Miss Marple.
    I do agree with 'gritty' since I try to show the truth behind everyday life during the war - the boredom, terror, anguish and joy at escaping death.


    1. I agree -- NOT a cozy - though plenty of smart humor and great period detail .. Would appeal to lots ofcozy readers

  9. I'm intrigued. Like Jan, I had no idea the Vatican was in fact a safe place for some people.

  10. It no longer exists, but the Vatican used to have a militia - the Palatine Guard - made up of Roman citizens, mainly shopkeepers, by tradition. During the war, the barracks within the Vatican City swelled with new recruits - many of them hidden Jews.

  11. We now interrupt with breaking news from the Kristen Weber blog!

    And the winner of the Jungle Red book of their choice is VickiH!

    VIckiH, email me at H ryan at whdh dot com and tell me your choice!

    We now return you...

  12. Congratulations Jim--always a pleasure to have you visit! I'm just home from the Sisters in Crime publishers summit in New York. I would think your ears would be buzzing as you were spoken of very highly at Library Journal where we visited yesterday:).

    We love Rome so can't wait to read your new book!

  13. James,
    Fascinating insights into the Vatican's role during World War II. And Sterling Hayden -- my gosh, I had no idea! I can hardly wait to read this book.

    I'm not Catholic but when I was in Rome in 1979 I happened on the Pope's installation of new cardinals. A dazzling show to watch. Outside afterward in the Square I was with the crowd when the Pope came out on his balcony to bless us. All I had to hold up was my coin purse, but when I got home I had my husband drill a hole in an Italian coin and to this day it's on my key ring.

    Apologies for rambling on here but your post did bring back memories.
    Good luck with the book.

    Pat Browning

  14. Thanks Lucy & Pat for your comments. Rome is truly a magical city.