James R. Benn is the author of the Billy Boyle World War II Mysteries, published by Soho Press. The debut title, Billy Boyle, was named one of the top five mysteries of 2006 by Book Sense and was a Dilys Award nominee. Several books have been Indie Next Picks and well-reviewed in the New York Times. The eighth, A Blind Goddess, was long-listed for the Dublin Literary Prize. The ninth, The Rest Is Silence, is a Barry Award nominee for 2015. The tenth, The White Ghost (9/1/15) garnered a starred review in Booklist.
Benn lives in Hadlyme, Connecticut with his wife Deborah Mandel. In 2011 he retired to write full time after working in the library and information science field for over thirty years. He received a graduate degree in Library Science from Southern Connecticut State University. He is a member of the Mystery Writers of America and the Author’s Guild.
Benn finds his writing is best guided by two quotes that have helped keep him focused.
The first is from Oscar Wilde, who said “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of one’s pants to a chair.” The second is from novelist Rachel Basch, who stated “The story has to move down, as well as forward.” Both are simple, profound, and complex.
1943: In the midst of the brutal, hard-fought Solomon Islands campaign between the Allies and the Japanese forces, Lieutenant Billy Boyle receives an odd assignment: he’s sent by the powerful Kennedy family to investigate a murder in which PT skipper (and future president) Jack Kennedy has been implicated. The victim is a native coastwatcher, an allied intelligence operative, whom Kennedy discovered on the island of Tulagi with his head bashed in. That’s Kennedy’s story, anyhow.
Kennedy was recovering in the Navy hospital on the island after the sinking of his PT-109 motor torpedo boat. The military hasn’t decided yet whether to make him a hero for surviving the attack, or have him court-martialed for losing the boat, and the last thing the Kennedy clan wants is a murder charge hanging over his head. Billy knows firsthand that he shouldn’t trust Jack: the man is a charmer, a womanizer, and, when it suits his needs, a liar. But would he kill someone in cold blood? And if so, why? The first murder is followed by two more, and to find the killer, Billy must sort through a tangled, shifting web of motives and identities, even as combat rages all around him.
NOW FROM JAMES
How do writers of historical fiction remain true to the past? It’s nearly impossible.
“There is no such thing as human history,” according to the 19th century historian John Lothrop Motley. Addressing the New York Historical Society in 1868, he said all we possess is “a leaf or two from the great book of human fate as it flutters in stormwinds ever sweeping across the earth. We decipher them as best we can with purblind eyes, and endeavor to learn their mystery as we float along to the abyss; but it is all confused babble….”
Motley was talking about the inability of moderns to fully understand the past, to leave behind their own preconceptions and their grounding in contemporary times. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. referred to Motley in his famous paper “History and National Stupidity”, published in the New York Review of Books in 2006. “History is not self-executing,” Schlesinger said. “You do not put a coin in a slot and have history come out…the past is a chaos of events and personalities into which we cannot penetrate. It is beyond retrieval and it is beyond reconstruction.”
Chaos beyond retrieval. Yet professional historians keep writing books about Lincoln, about Rome, the American Revolution, about the great devils of history and the fewer angels who inhabit the past.
Writers of fiction labor at history too, illuminating the past not through footnotes and the global view, but from the viewpoint of characters, giving modern readers ancient eyes with which to see the through those stormwinds of history. A society must know and understand its past, just as a person needs to know where they came from: the story of their life, their parent’s lives and the lives of others who came before. If we fail to understand our past, either as a legend or the objective truth, we stand on crumbling ground as we try to move forward.
As a writer of historical fiction, I make up a lot of things. But the core of the story, the sense of when at the heart of the novel, remains sacred ground. That is the place I try to go and see with ancient eyes. Only once in my life did I truly see with those eyes. It was September 12, 2001. I stood outside, gazing up at the empty blue sky, and realized that for the first time in my life, I didn’t know what was going to happen next. I was adrift, and felt a kinship with my fictional character, Billy Boyle, going off to war in 1942. Those men and women didn’t know what was going to happen next either. All the history I’d read had not prepared me for that simple truth. As a matter of fact, it disguised that truth by giving me the outcome to every great battle and struggle of history, telling me a finished story that blinded me to the open-ended human drama. The wondering; what will become of me? Of those I love? Of my country?
I always thought he was joking, but now I understand what Oscar Wilde meant when he said, “The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it.”
In The White Ghost, I worked to present a young Jack Kennedy at the brink of maturity, coming to grips with the real world in the steamy seas surrounding the Solomon Islands. Through the fictional lens of a murder investigation conducted by fellow Boston Irish-American Billy Boyle, the reader may hopefully understand the historical forces that shaped the young man who would go on to be President John F. Kennedy.