Author Guest Post - James Benn - for St.Patrick's Day

Monday, March 16, 2009

With Saint Patrick’s Day upon us, and with all the final edits done for the fourth title in the Billy Boyle World War II mystery series, Evil For Evil, (Soho Press, September 2009) it’s a good time to sit back and think about what I’ve learned.

What’s Saint Patrick’s Day got to do with it? Well, in this book, Billy—who comes from a Catholic Irish-American family in Boston where the men are cops and the women pray for them—gets to visit the old sod, almost. It depends on how you define Ireland, and in that definition lies more trouble and despair than Billy ever counted on.

Readers familiar with the series know that Billy and his family are IRA supporters, and none too happy being allied with the English in yet another war in defense of their empire—as they see it. Erin Go Bragh—Ireland Forever—is a very real and sacred phrase to them. Since arriving in London in 1942, Billy has done his best to come to grips with the demands of this conflict and the complex pulls on his loyalties. His romantic involvement with Diana Seaton, a beautiful young Englishwoman from the upper crust of that society, further complicates his attempts to define his own place as a faithful son of Eire in a world at war.

As the book opens, Billy is not yet on the emerald isle. He’s in Jerusalem, on a jaunt with his uncle, General Dwight David Eisenhower. In November 1943, Ike had been ordered to take some time off, so he took a few close aides along with his driver, the Anglo-Irish ex-model and driver Kay Summersby, and in the fictional world, Billy Boyle and Diana Seaton. Kay Summersby (below with Eisenhower’s Scottish Terrier Telek) received a semi-romantic note from Ike in Jerusalem, which Billy accidently discovers as he pours out his heart to Kay, uncertain of his future with Diana. She is about to embark on a mission behind enemy lines for the British Special Operations Executive, and her leaving threatens their relationship.


Billy, still a bit of a naïve kid, is stunned to learn there may be something between Uncle Ike and Kay. Before he can take all this in, and before he can work through the issues that divide him and Diana, he is ordered to Northern Ireland, with a mission to investigate links between the Irish Republican Army and the German Abwehr intelligence service, as well as the murder of a suspected IRA agent.


As part of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland was British soil and major point of entry for thousands of GIs and their equipment. Billy is fearful as he enters Northern Ireland, knowing that his duty puts him on the side of the English, who wish to contain any threat the IRA poses, while his family history puts him squarely on the side of the rebels.

Researching Irish history in order to more completely fill out Billy’s own family history, I learned that there is more to the infamous Potato Famine than I had ever thought. Some historians refute the notion of a famine altogether. There was a blight which ruined the potato harvest, with devastating consequences, but there was still an abundance of food in the Ireland of 1845. However, it was controlled by the Protestant families imported by the British to rule over the indigenous Irish Catholics, and it was for export only. For more information, see this website:

Some homes in Northern Ireland are decorated with political and religious murals. Here is one referring to the Potato Blight: “They buried us without shroud nor coffin.”


It was the Potato Blight that brought the first Boyle to America, the only surviving son of a family that died out in the famine, buried on the side of the road, where they died after being evicted from their ruined farm, buried without shroud or coffin. Billy’s grandfather, age eleven, arrived in America with this note pinned to his jacket:
Never forget your name is Liam O’Baoighill, and you were born in County Roscommon. Your father, my dear brother, was named Patrick, your mother Cliona. Never forget the English took our farms and let your parents, brothers and sisters starve. I know this. I earned your passage working at the Galway docks, loading freighters with sacks of grain, firkins of butter, barrels of barely, sacks of lard, ham and bacon. British soldiers guarded the ships until they set sail. Such are the men who rule our land. Grow strong in America. You or your sons, or their sons, must one day return to smite them. God indeed gave us the potato blight, but the English gave us this famine.
The note has been passed down in the Boyle family, read aloud every year, never to be forgotten. Billy knows it by heart, and is uneasy being the first Boyle to return to Ireland, not to smite the British, but to serve them.


Billy encounters much of what he would have expected in the North. The scars of the Irish Rebellion and the Civil War that followed are still open and raw in 1943. The depredations of the Black and Tans, the paramilitary forces brought in by the British to help put down the rebellion. Mainly veterans of the World War, these troops were outfitted in a variety of surplus army and police uniforms, hence the name, after the color of the tunics and trousers. The Black and Tans were a brutal law unto themselves. They were supported by a network of laws aimed at keeping the native Irish under control, and there was little recourse or complaint allowed. The speaking of Gaelic was outlawed, for instance. Anyone who spoke their own name out loud in the ancient Irish tongue could be imprisoned.


Researching the history of the Anglo-Irish conflict, I was struck not only by such arbitrary laws and blatant unfairness, but how after the rebellion was over, the IRA turned in on itself, perpetrating many of the same cruelties they had endured on their own brothers. When the war with England ended with the partition of the North, those who favored the treaty became part of the army and police force of the new Irish republic. Those who were against the treaty and the forfeit of any part of the island to British rule fought against the Republic, just as they had fought against England.

There was no peace, even after the establishment of the Irish Free State, as it was first called. The Irish Republican Army stayed active, raising funds in America and keeping up the struggle against Dublin and London. During World War II, the IRA was most active in the North, and conducted a bombing campaign against civilian targets in England. There were numerous attempts at cooperation between the Germans and the IRA, aimed at furthering the goals of both.

It is into this maelstrom that Billy descends, charged with solving a murder and preventing the success of a plot between the IRA and the Germans which result in the deaths of many Americans and Irish, north and south of the border. With GIs streaming into Northern Ireland, any large-scale eruption of fighting by the IRA would be bound to draw them in, dangerously throwing the upcoming invasion off schedule.


In typical Billy Boyle fashion, he must find a way to stay true to himself, his duty, his family and his ancestors, all way staying in once piece.

The title, EVIL FOR EVIL, comes from the Bible, which counsels us to…
Recompense to no man evil for evil.
Romans xii. 17.

Advice often perhaps ignored. Children on both sides of the conflict are still taught which side they were born into from an early age, whether it is these three Protestant girls, awaiting an Orange Society Parade, holding their flags adorned with the Red Hand of Ulster…


Or these three Catholic boys, playing with their toy guns beneath an IRA mural, mourning the death of yet another combatant.


For mystery readers new to the Billy Boyle World War II mysteries, the first three paperbacks in the series are available:

Photobucket  Photobucket Photobucket

Billy Boyle (PB $12)
First Wave: (PB $12)
Blood Alone (HC $24)
Blood Alone PB (September 2009): 978-1-56947-595-9 ($13 PB)
Evil for Evil (September 2009): 978-1-56947-593-5 ($25 HC)

Thank you so much, James, for that wonderfully detailed post! Readers, your comments are most appreciated!
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