Saturday, March 29, 2014

James Benn and "Gateway Mysteries"

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: I've been honored to introduce
many wonderful authors, but must confess — I'm a huge fan of James Benn and his Billy Boyle series from way back. I remember reading the first novel, Billy Boyle: A World War II Mystery, in 2007 — and being absolutely bowled over. A World War II mystery — told in such a fresh and exciting way. (It was what I wanted to do — but with a female protagonist. Jim and I have joked that someday we should write a Billy Boyle/Maggie Hope crossover story.)

Jim is now on his ninth Billy Boyle mystery, and in my humble opinion, they just keep getting better and better. Here's a brief description of his newest, due out in September:

THE REST IS SILENCE (September 2014) is the ninth Billy
Boyle mystery. As preparations for D-Day continue, Billy and Kaz are sent to southwest England to investigate the discovery of a body washed up on a beach in a restricted training area. As the case proceeds, Billy comes face to face with the cost of war for the English people. After five long years with their nation on the front lines, the wounded and maimed in body and soul are returning home. In the midst of all this, an American training exercise goes horribly wrong as German E-boats intercept a convoy headed for the beach at Slapton Sands. Nearly a thousand men are killed in the Channel waters, but Billy and Kaz are tasked to find ten of them; BIGOTs, those who know the secrets of D-Day.

And here, without further ado, is Jim, talking about his "gateway mystery" — the one that sparked his interest in the genre.

JAMES BENN: How did we all end up here?

No, not here in the cosmos, but at a site dedicated to crime fiction. We all had to start somewhere, picking up a mystery novel for the first time, getting hooked, finding a cultural home base, and gathering online to celebrate our communal interests. 

Mysteries weren’t my first genre. In high school I was all about science fiction. Isaac Asimov and the Foundation Trilogy. After college the appeal of sci-fi faded, and I began to read mainly non-fiction.

In 1974 I was working at the University of Denver Library, as a para-professional cataloger in the serials department, taking library science graduate courses at night. For some unknown reason, the university subscribed to a wide variety of British tabloid newspapers. Hardly research materials.
Until the Lord Lucan murder case.

I don’t recall seeing the case reported in the American press, but when the tabloids came in to the library, the front pages were lit up with it. Dark-haired, tall, and good-looking, Lord Lucan was an aristocrat and a gambler. He gave up the banking profession in 1960 when he won 26,000 pounds gambling over the course of two days. That earned him the nickname “Lucky” Lucan and left him with the mistaken impression he could do it again and again.

He couldn't.

Separated from his wife—and with her in possession of the family

home in London—he evidently came up with a scheme to kill her and gain custody of the home and his children. His career as a murderer was about as rewarding as his gambling life. On Thursday, November 7, 1974, Lucan broke into his wife’s house and waited for her in the kitchen, armed with a length of pipe. He’d unscrewed the light bulb to better hide in the darkness when she came down for her evening cuppa.

Unfortunately for Sandra Rivett, the live-in nanny who usually
took Thursday nights off, she stayed home that night. A young girl, about the same height as Lady Lucan, offered to make tea for her that fateful night.

She died in the darkened kitchen, her head smashed in.

In the dark, Lucky Lucan worked feverishly to stuff her body into a mail sack (still thinking it was Lady Lucan), planning to dump it at sea and report his wife missing. He was interrupted by Veronica Lucan, who’d come down
stairs to check on Sandra. He attacked her, wounding her severely, but not before she grabbed his balls and rendered him hors de combat.

Of course, this all didn’t come out at first. The initial reports were short on details and full of the claims Lucan made—in letters written while on the run—about finding a strange man attacking his wife and sending him packing.
He claimed that the circumstantial evidence would be used to discredit him, and promptly disappeared.

There are a number of websites giving facts and touting different theories. For the basics, visit Wikipedia.

There is a pro-Lucan website, dedicated to his innocence here.

And Lady Lucan’s own site, striking a quite different tone here.

The Lucan family of aristocrats had at least one other infamous

Earl. Lord Lucan’s great-great-grandfather, the Third Earl of Lucan, earned his dubious place in history a hundred and twenty years earlier in the Crimea. He was the officer who ordered the ill-fated Charge of the Light Brigade, which resulted in the deaths of more than 600 men at Balaclava.

A decidedly unlucky Lucan.

Whatever the truth of Lucky Lucan’s guilt or innocence, this case and the British tabloid press whetted my appetite for more. As coincidence would have it, Masterpiece Theatre was showing the first Lord Peter Wimsey mystery, starring Ian Carmichael, at the same time. I watched it.

I was hooked. I devoured all the Dorothy L. Sayers mysteries and went looking for more. For me, it all started with Lucky Lucan.

So, Jungle Reds, how did you come to the world of crime fiction? 

Readers, what was your gateway mystery?


  1. Ah, so nice to meet another Isaac Asimov “Foundation Trilogy” fan.
    Interestingly enough, it was another of Isaac Asimov’s science fiction novels, “The Caves of Steel,” that introduced me to mysteries. Then I discovered Sherlock Holmes . . . and Nancy Drew . . . and Agatha Christie . . . .

    My husband enjoys the Billy Boyle stories as much as I do; we are both looking forward to reading “The Rest Is Silence” . . . .

  2. I enjoy historical fiction, and don't read enough of it. I'm going to have to put Billy Boyle on my to be read pile.

    I started early with my love of mysteries. Nate the Great was a picture book detective story. Actually, a lot of fun. From there, I graduated to The Hardys, Nancy, Trixie, Encyclopedia.... I did read a little scifi and fantasy, but when I emerged from kid's books, it was some historical fiction and mystery that grabbed me. And mystery that I keep reading to this day.

  3. Hi, Jim.

    I had always been fascinated by the detective mystique from black-and-white movies, but the first books I read completely for pleasure (the summer of freshman year in college, '93) were action/adventures: David Morrell, Ian Fleming. After a dozen of those, my first mystery was Gregory Mcdonald's Fletch (1974). From there, still heavily influenced by TV, I moved to Robert B. Parker's Spenser series, reading eighteen Spenser books by the end of that summer.

    I loved Mcdonald's and Parker's gifts for monologue and dialogue, how deftly they used it for character description. Only when I read less eloquent authors did I realize how much I'd gotten into Fletch and Spenser.

  4. What a great story! I've heard about Lucky Lucan but not in any detail.

    I've read the first Billy Boyle book and I really enjoyed it. I have no idea why I haven't read the subsequent books but they'll go on my TBR list. Thanks for the reminder.

    Of course, Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames were my first mystery heroines. My first adult mysteries, the ones that really got me hooked on the genre, were the books by Helen MacInnes. I devoured those right after the other. I think I drove the librarian crazy. Foreign locales, spies, good stories! Loved them. And I'm thrilled to see them available on Kindle now. I'm sure I have some dogeared paperbacks in a box in the cellar.

  5. Hi everyone! Welcome Jim! My gateway mystery was Nancy Drew.... Read ALL of them and never looked back....

  6. Even before Lord Lucan and Lord Peter, I'd read most of the Sherlock Holmes stories. But they were in a class all to themselves; they didn't lead me to other mysteries, oddly enough.

  7. "Lizzie Borden took and axe and gave her mother forty whacks . . ." True crime captured my attention when I read my father's NY Daily News Sunday editions. The Lindberg baby, "In Cold Blood," celebrities and ordinary people.

    Thanks for today's post -- I am heading for the websites.

    And, by the way, a plug for YA fiction writer Lois Duncan who has been investigating/writing/pushing to solve her daughter's murder in Albuquerque. She has become an advocate for hundreds of families.

  8. I read many mysteries as a young reader, so I can't claim a particular gateway book or author. As an adult reader, I immersed myself in Ngaio Marsh and Josephine Tey.

    Real life mysteries: Roanoke, Bermuda Triangle, Michael Rockefeller. I'm drawn to disappearances, I suppose.

  9. What were your "gateway thrillers"? Mine was the Odessa File....

  10. Gateway thriller: Eye of the Needle. Still one of my favorite books.

  11. Oh, man, the Lucans look like the epitome of Sixties cool.

  12. As a girl, I loved Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew, but I graduated to adult mysteries early when I discovered Dick Francis at age 14 or so. Then I went straight to Helen Macinnes and Alistair Maclean. I don't think anyone has ever written better thrillers than Maclean. I do love Follett also, but it was The Guns of Navarone that got me started reading thrillers and I've never looked back. I consider the Maggie Hope books half thriller, half mystery. And now I will head over to the library to check out Billy Boyle.

  13. I do remember my first mystery. Read at the cottage, where you'd pick up any old book someone else had left there. Agatha Christie's After the Funeral. This edition was named for the movie, Murder at the Gallop, and showed Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple on the cover. Except that it's actually a Poirot mystery.

    No matter, I was hooked at 14. I was totally captivated by the way Christie had included all the clues, right there on the page, for anyone to find if they were clever enough.

    Gateway indeed.

    (Though yes, I was a Trixieholic before then, but didn't make the link between, say, The Red Trailer Mystery, and grownup murder mysteries.)

  14. I started young with my brother's Hardy Boys books, then Nancy Drew, Dana Girls, etc. I read any mystery I could find in the children's section. Then I started reading Mom's books: Helen MacInnes, and so forth. Probably college was the only time I wasn't reading for pleasure. But once there was time again it was back to mystery and suspense. I've been intending to read the Billy Boyle stories. Now you've given me some impetus!

  15. Hi Jim! I became a huge Billy Boyle fan after the first time you visited on JRW. I've read the first five books and the only reason I haven't made it all the way through the series is because of commitments to read other things. So, now my mission is to get caught up with Billy and pre-order The Rest is Silence. I know a little bit about Slapton Sands as my friend Marcia Talley wrote a contemporary mystery, All Things Undying, in which part of the story involves the history of Slapton Sands. Fascinating.

    My gateway to mystery? I read so many... And like you, sci-fi was my first love. But I think my first real passion for mysteries was inspired by Dorothy Sayers. On my very first trip to England, in my twenties, I made two pilgimages--one to Oxford, to see Balliol especially, and one to Lord Peter's fictional address on Picadilly. Can you say "fan girl?"

  16. Like many other young people, I was captivated by Nancy Drew and then Trixy Belden. I even co-authored a play in elementary school, a mystery set in Egypt, which was put on for the school. As I matured into my twenties, the mystery series that sealed the deal was Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, quickly followed by Hercule Poirot. Of course, Sherlock Holmes took a permanent place early on, too. Also, I remember that when I started going to the adult section of the public library, I gravitated toward true crime and mystery. The mixture of true crime with mystery fed and began my love of historical fiction mystery.

    Oh, Denise, I am a Lizzie Borden groupie, too. LOL! I have read several non-fiction books on the murders, and it remains a topic of great interest to me. In fact, it seems that the non-fiction books I read are related to true crimes or historical events with true crime at the center.

    And, Jim, I now have another series to add to my must-read mysteries. Your Billy Boyle novels sound fascinating, and they might just be the mystery series I've been looking for to tempt my husband into the genre.

  17. Glad you're writing about Operation Tiger, Jim. I had visited Devon to research All Things Undying and was so fascinated by the Slapton Sands and the disasterous pre-Dday exercise that I had to write it into the book. Last year I visited the WW2 Museum in New Orleans and saw one of the BIGOT maps. My heart stood still. (Readers, BIGOT has nothing to do with bigotry. It's GOGIB (go Gibraltar backwards). Fascinating story, hushed up to protect the secret of DDay several months later. You might remember an episode of Foyles War that mentioned Slapton Sands, but otherwise, not much written about it. Will definitely add your book to my collection, Jim.

  18. As a child, I read Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden. Around age 11, I read Christie's "And Then There Were None" and was instantly hooked on the classic cozy murder mysteries. Today I own all of Christie's books in HB and have reread them all at least once.

    Having grown up near Cleveland, I have been fascinated with the Sam Sheppard story, although the murder occurred well before I was born. By the way, I'm convinced he was guilty...

  19. Marcia Talley: I will have to check out your Slapton Sands book soonest! And there's some competing definitions of BIGOT for the history trivia fan to ponder. One is that it was coined by the British early on in the war and it meant British Invasion of German Occupied Territory.

  20. So glad to see you on Jungle Reds again, Jim.

    Like you, sf/f was an early (and continued) love, but I came to the mystery early. Oddly enough, my first introduction to mystery was Agatha Christie's DEATH COMES AS THE END, her Egyptian mystery. After that, I discovered Nancy Drew, but kept reading Christie mysteries with which Nancy could hardly compare well.

    I remember when I was young reading about the Lucky Lucan case when it happened though I'd forgotten lots of the details. Fun to revisit.

  21. Forgot the first mystery novel I read in the 6th grade. Around the same time, my grandparents bought me a gift subscription to the Nancy Drew book club and I received ND books every month for about a year.

    I still have the ND books. I challenged myself to read "harder" books, meaning books with no pictures inside. I started with Agatha Christie novels. Now they are easy for me to read.

    There are many mystery series, which I enjoy.

    Just added the Billy Boyle series to my BTR category.

    Thank you for an excellent post,

  22. Honestly, my gateway mysteries were probably Nancy Drew, Judy Bolton, the Hardy Boys, and the Three Investigators. Oh, and Encyclopedia Brown. But in middle school I graduated to Christie and Marsh, and thence to Sayers and Tey and on to Dick Francis and P.D. James and Catherine Aird and Ellis Peters. (And now several of the Jungle Reds as well!) But Christie was almost certainly the first adult mystery writer I read.

  23. furheI started on Nancy Drew and the Hardy boys in primary school, and by 6th. grade I had discovered Agatha Christie. In Jr. high I added Sherlock Holmes, Fu Manchu, all the Asimovs (I loved him - scifi by a real scientist), Marsh, Tey - on and on. Mysteries are the only fiction I read.

  24. What a fascinating story, Jim -- truth really is stranger than fiction. My gateway book: P. D. James's An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. Too bad she only wrote 2 Cordelia Gray mysteries.

    My new book (due out next year) is inspired by a true crime... an infamous Hollywood murder from 1958.

  25. Hi Jim, welcome to JR!

    I've never been too much for true crime but that is one heck of a fascinating story!

    I'm with the traditional gateway people--Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Bobbsey Twins, cherry Ames...

  26. What a great great question! Roger Ackroyd. oxoxoo

  27. Gate way thriller? James Bond! (I had to sneak them..)

  28. I have only a vague memory of the Lucan name, but the story sounds fascinating. And terrible for the nanny.

    Meanwhile, awaiting the outcome of the Pistorius trial. Surely that's the Lucan tragedy for the 21st C.

  29. I have only a vague memory of the Lucan name, but the story sounds fascinating. And terrible for the nanny.

    Meanwhile, awaiting the outcome of the Pistorius trial. Surely that's the Lucan tragedy for the 21st C.