Written by James R Benn — Death’s Door is the seventh title in the Billy Boyle World War II Mystery series. Don’t be put off reading this book if you’re not familiar with the previous ones, though – each story is an adventure which stands on its own, and can be enjoyed in isolation. Of course, you will get more out of seeing how the characters develop through the books if you do read the others.
First a little recap. Billy Boyle was an Irish American beat cop who thought he’d avoided the battlefields of WWII through family connections. He hoped to sit out the conflict working at the War Plans Department in Washington for his uncle General Eisenhower. But when Ike becomes Commander of the US forces in Europe, Billy has to follow. With his police background, he’s appointed as a kind of special investigator for the general. He teams up with Kaz – Lieutenant (and Baron) Piotr Augustus Kazimierz, of the Polish Army in Exile. Their war experience binds them togther, alongside the fact that they each fall in love with one of the Seaton sisters, who work for British intelligence. Kaz loved Daphne, who dies early in the series, and this loss makes him cynical and reckless. Billy loves Diana, but their work keeps them apart, and Billy’s over-protective nature risks driving a rift between them.
Death’s Door is set in Italy in 1944. The end of the War may be approaching, and victory seems certain for the Allies, but The Vatican must remain scrupulously neutral for fear of German invasion. It is a hotbed of political intrigue and paranoia as rival clerics posture for the Pope’s ear, and the concealment of refugees in the Holy City is raising tensions further.
Boyle and Kaz go undercover to investigate the murder of an American monsignor who has links to the OSS, an American intelligence agency. They travel disguised as priests with the help of British intelligence. Billy is told that Diana is being held in Rome’s notorious Regina Coeli prison, having been picked up by accident in a Gestapo sweep. How long before her identity is revealed and she’s tortured and shot as a spy? Billy has to find a way of unmasking the priest’s killer without destabilising the nuanced neutrality of the Vatican, plus rescue Diana.
There is an old fashioned feel to this series. These novels are full of perilous adventures and daring escapes – Boy’s Own stuff, in short. The romances are remarkably chaste and there is very little swearing. I think they make a refreshing change. Furthermore, the history and settings are very well researched and I always learn something with each book. In Death’s Door, the political machinations surrounding the Vatican’s response to the evidence of the Holocaust is fascinating. The author seems to up his game with each new release too. Early on some of the writing fell a little flat, but as the series progresses, so does the prose.
If you’re like me, you’ll develop a soft spot for Billy Boyle, and will hope his war doesn’t end too soon. Recommended, especially for people who think that they don’t write ’em like this anymore.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars