A resident of Hadlyme, Benn will visit Bank Square Books in Mystic next Tuesday evening to present A Blind Goddess (Soho Press, $26.95), the newest entry in his historical mystery series featuring US Army Lieutenant detective Billy Boyle. (See event details below.) Benn is also the author of two stand-alone thrillers—Souvenir and On Dangerous Ground—that are published by E-Reads and available from B&N and Amazon. Additionally, he and his wife, psychotherapist Debra Mandel, recently co-authored the non-fiction title Traumatized: The Story of a State Trooper with John G. Patterson. Benn is a graduate of the University of Connecticut and received his MLS degree from Southern Connecticut State University; he worked in the library and information technology field for more than thirty-five years and is a member of Mystery Writers of America and the Author’s Guild.
Released earlier this month, A Blind Goddess is the author’s eighth Billy Boyle World War II novel. Publishers Weekly gave the title a starred review, noting, “The superior plot and thoughtful presentation of institutional racism directed against American soldiers about to risk their lives for their country make this one of Benn’s best.” Further, Booklist praised, “Benn’s thoroughly researched exploration of segregation in the wartime armed services is revealing and sensitively handled. Another nice mix of human drama and WWII history,” while Weirs Times enthused, “Benn’s writing is crisp and distinctive as it always is, and his research, again as always, is impeccable.”
From the publisher:
March, 1944: US Army Lieutenant Billy Boyle, back in England after a dangerous mission in Italy, is due for a little R&R, and also a promotion. But the now-Captain Boyle doesn't get to kick back and enjoy his leisure time because two upsetting cases fall into his lap at once.
The first is a personal request from an estranged friend: Sergeant Eugene "Tree" Jackson, who grew up with Billy in Boston, is part of the 617th Tank Destroyers, the all-African American battalion poised to make history by being the US Army's first combatant African American company. But making history isn't easy, and the 617th faces racism at every turn. One of Tree's men, a gunner named Angry Smith, has been arrested for a crime he almost certainly didn't commit, and faces the gallows if the real killer isn't found. Tree knows US top brass won't care about justice in this instance, and asks Billy if he'll look into it.
But Billy can't use any of his leave to investigate, because British intelligence agent Major Cosgrove puts him on a bizarre and delicate case. A British accountant has been murdered in an English village, and he may or may not have had some connection with the US Army--Billy doesn't know, because Cosgrove won't tell him. Billy is supposed to go into the village and investigate the murder, but everything seems fishy--he's not allowed to interrogate certain key witnesses, and his friends and helpers keep being whisked away. Billy is confused about whether Cosgrove even wants him to solve the murder, and why.
The good news is the mysterious murder gives Billy an excuse to spend time in and around the village where Tree and his unit are stationed. If he's lucky, maybe he can get to the bottom of both mysteries--and save more than one innocent life.
Now, James R. Benn talks history and mystery…
1) What provided the inspiration for A BLIND GODDESS? Also, tell us about the challenges of keeping a series fresh…
I had wanted to write about blacks in the US Army in WWII, but thought I’d wait until after D-Day and incorporate the experiences of the Red Ball Express – mostly black drivers who brought needed supplies forward for the units outpacing their supply lines. But then I went to Book Expo America a few years ago and a woman came through the signing line wearing a nametag that changed everything. Her last name was Angry-Smith. In a flash, I saw that character; a black GI nicknamed “Angry” who was falsely accused of murder in pre D-Day England. I told her I was going to write a book titled “Angry Smith”, and she probably thought I was crazy. That was the working title, changed later to A Blind Goddess. To answer the second part of your question, one way to keep a series fresh is to be alert to those sudden flashes of inspiration.
2) This particular book addresses racism/segregation in the wartime armed services. How did you endeavor to present this material and what do you hope that readers might take away from your exploration of the topic?
Since the Billy Boyle books are written in the first person, the experience of racial segregation in the army, and the society of the time, had to be presented through his eyes. As an Irishman from South Boston, I needed to give Billy a logical reason to be sympathetic. So I created a backstory having to do with his relationship as a young man with Eugene “Tree” Jackson, who after years of estrangement asks him for help in England. Tree is a sergeant with a black combat unit, and Angry is one of his men.
3) What is your research process like and how do you know when it’s time to close those books and begin writing your own? Also, how do you balance history with action so as not to lose narrative momentum?
I read everything I can on whatever topic I’m researching; anything even tangential to the subject, in order to become immersed in it. I take acres of notes and then start writing; very often I don’t need to refer back to any of that because I’ve absorbed the sense of time and place through my pores. As a writer of historical fiction, I do strive to get things right; but sometimes I do need to remind myself that it’s okay to make stuff up. There is a danger of getting too precise, and losing the momentum that the story needs. There needs to be fine and invisible line between the historical truth and the fictional mystery, and favoring one over the over can destroy the integrity of the narrative.
4) Soho Press is resurrecting the original cover art for their re-releases of the previous Billy Boyle novels. Can you enlighten us as to the factors that can influence such a decision? And, in your opinion, just how important can a good cover be to a book’s ultimate success?
I have no idea. I tend to leave the business end of publishing to the professionals. But I have to say I am glad to see the cover art back, and the smaller size of the paperbacks. A lot of bookstore folks have said they are easier to display than the larger trade paperback sizes. So whatever makes bookstores happy makes me happy.
5) You have written a few books outside of the Billy Boyle series, including the non-fiction title TRAUMATIZED, which was co-authored by your wife, psychotherapist Deborah Mandel. How do these projects both invigorate and challenge you as a writer? Also, how do your wife’s insights into the means and motivations of people help to shape the development of your characters?
My wife is an excellent editor, first reader, and analyst of human emotions. She gives me a lot of insight into the actions and reactions of my characters, and has served as an expert consultant in the portrayal of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (combat fatigue). TRAUMATIZED was an eye-opening project. It’s the story of a Connecticut State Trooper who, within the first few years of his career, shot and killed two assailants in justified shootings. He went through severe PTSD and came through it to be an inspiration to other law enforcement professionals went through similar encounters. As a crime fiction writer, it was incredibly informative to see what police life is like behind the scenes. It is a gritty, no-holds barred view of that life, characterized as 99% boredom and 1% terror.
6) What is the importance of the brick and mortar bookstore within the community and how do you hope that touring in support of these books will enhance the writer/reader/bookseller relationship?
The bookseller is the doorway to the reader. They are the most important element in the success of a book after it is released. A book tour is a great way to meet readers and fans face-to-face, but it’s also vital to establish personal connections with the folks who are hand selling books every day. All the online venues for selling books are important too, but the human element is so critical to success that I don’t see the traditional book tour going away anytime soon.
With thanks to James Benn for his generosity of time and thought.
The author will appear at Bank Square Books next Tuesday evening, September 17th, from 5-7 pm. Books will be available for purchase/signing and wine, seltzer, and refreshments will be served. This event is free and open to the public. Reservations can be made online or by calling the store at 860-536-3795. BSB is located at 53 W. Main St. in Mystic.