Book Review: From the Shadows by James R. Benn
By John ValeriOctober 4, 2022
James R. Benn had a lengthy career in libraries and information technology before making the transition to novelist with 2006’s Billy Boyle—the first of seventeen (and counting!) WWII novels to feature the titular character, who is some distant relation of “Uncle” Ike Eisenhower. The series has garnered stellar reviews and earned prestigious nominations for accolades including the Dilys, IMPAC Dublin Literary, Barry, and Macavity Awards. Additionally, Benn has written three standalone historical novels—On Desperate Ground, Souvenir, and Shard—and collaborated on the non-fiction title Traumatized (2013) with state trooper John Patterson and his wife, psychotherapist Deborah Mandel. Billy Boyle now returns in From the Shadows.
It’s 1944 and the Irish-American Boyle—who began his career as a cop in Boston before being enlisted on behalf of “Uncle” Ike—finds himself dispatched to Southern France, where he’s tasked with gathering information on the Vichy government and other German sympathizers who colluded with Hitler’s army before their retreat. But he must first travel to Crete to collect Captain Richard “Dickie” Thorne, who will accompany him on this mission. Before they can move on, a shot is fired at their entourage; it’s either a failed attempt or a warning—and but the opening salvo in a duplicitous dance. Thorne is soon found dead in his hotel room, the victim of an unknown assailant (with an unknown agenda). Making matters worse, Corporal Elwood Drake—an African American agent of the Office of Strategic Services—is held on suspicion of murder. It’s an injustice that Billy cannot ignore.
Determined to solve the crime and exonerate Drake, Billy undertakes a sensitive investigation concurrent to his assigned inquiry. Fortunately, he’s joined by his trusty friends Kaz and Big Mike, who know when to apply pressure and when to take it off. Further, his girlfriend, Diana Seaton, is also in France on a complimentary humanitarian mission to make reparations, accompanied by infamous Special Operations Executive Christine Granville. Betrayals and bombings ensue as the motley crew races against time (and encounters some of the era’s most elite warriors) to unmask the guilty parties before they kill again—all the while continuing to uncover information for the restitution efforts. Admittedly, this is a simplification of a complex, character rich, plot—but it’s serviceable as a primer. (The novel is bolstered by the inclusion of six pages of historical notes to give proper context and clarification.)
The story is told exclusively through Billy’s POV, which keeps things intimate (and enhances the mystery of it all)—even as a large-scale battle rages on across borders. His escapades continue to expose the rampant racism, sexism, and (other) war crimes that were drowned out by the cacophony of gallantry and guns; consequently, hidden heroes and heroines emerge and are given their due while unlikely villains are made to face a jury of readers. Per usual, Billy’s sidekicks provide a welcome injection of levity and longstanding tradition while his romantic reunion with Diana is, as always, heightened by the uncertainty of the times and the question of when, and if, they’ll meet again. As noted, the cast of fictional characters is augmented by factual ones (such as Drake, Granville, and even Ernest Hemingway’s son, Jack), adding to the narrative’s overall realism and resonance.
From the Shadows is another stellar entry in this venerable series, which has evolved impressively. Benn continues to find new, and largely forgotten, events (and their corresponding locales) to explore, invigorating his creative canvas while further illuminating the atrocities of war, which are often more far-reaching than remembered. Despite the gravity of this, the books are grounded in Billy Boyle’s innate humanity and humor, which have sustained him—and us—from the very first book. And that’s a victory in and of itself.