In Benn's high-spirited second WWII mystery (after 2006's Billy Boyle), tough, earthy Boston cop turned army lieutenant Boyle hunkers down in a landing craft during the gripping first-wave attack to liberate Algeria in 1942. Once ashore, Boyle sets out on an intelligence mission to sort out the power struggle among Vichy French traitors, free French forces and German occupiers. Boyle is soon taken into custody and catches a glimpse of his ex-girlfriend Diana, a British spy on a similar mission. He returns to friendly territory in time to find that a sergeant's throat has been cut and vital morphine and penicillin supplies stolen. The enormous multinational cast makes it hard to determine a likely suspect, especially once Boyle uncovers a drug-smuggling network, American officers running poker parties and further murders of enlisted men, all somehow tied to a secret coded notebook. Historical figures like Adm. Jean Darlan give this lively story a bit of period flair. (Sept.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Billy Boyle finds skullduggery ashore in Algeria.
Take a young Irish cop. Turn him into a lieutenant on Eisenhower's personal staff-one charged with being "Ike's investigator." Set him ashore on the coast of French North Africa along with the first wave of invading American troops. And watch the mayhem, mystery, and murder that are bound to follow. Corrupt Vichy French officers steal a shipment of American penicillin, killing a supply sergeant in the process. Benn follows up his first World War II mystery (Billy Boyle) with another danger-filled episode and delivers a cross-genre tale that is at once spy story, soldier story, and hard-Boyled detective. Bullets, babes, and bombs give Billy Boyle a bad time before he solves the case, but you'll have a good time reading about it. Highly recommended for all mystery collections.
Ken St. Andre
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THE FIRST WAVEA Billy Boyle World War II Mystery
By James R. Ben
Soho Press, Inc.Copyright © 2007 James R. Benn
All right reserved.
Chapter OneOff the coast of French North Africa 8 November 1942
It was dark, and I was at sea, hunkered down in a flat-bottomed landing craft, slamming through four-foot swells and chugging noisily toward shore, leaving the relative safety of our troop transport behind. One hard mile out, me and twenty other guys, all sweating, scared, and slipping on the wet deck every time the landing craft crested another wave, rode on air for a split second, and then fell from under us. Each time it felt like hitting concrete from two stories up and each time I prayed it wouldn't happen again. No one was listening. The diesel fumes from the engine mixed with the smell of vomit and salt water and fear, giving off a new odor that wrapped itself around me, hooked into my nostrils, and wouldn't let go.
The guy next to me grabbed my arm. His eyes were wide as they darted back and forth, searching for something that wasn't there, like a really good place to hide. His face was drained of color and I could barely hear him above the sound of the engine and the smashing waves.
"Are we almost there, Lieutenant?"
"We'll know when they start shooting at us," I said.
He looked disappointed at my answer, but I had no idea how close we were and I wasn't about to stick my head up to look. I didn't know if the Vichy French were going to put up a fight when we landed or kiss us on both cheeks. Either way, I planned to keep a low profile.
The next wave wasn't as bad as the others, and I guessed that meant we were getting nearer the shore. Our landing area was designated Beer Green, sixteen miles west of Algiers, capital of Algeria, the French colony garrisoned by the Vichy French. I thought it was funny that after being in this war almost a year, the first time we invade somebody it's the French. Not the Nazis, not Mussolini and his Fascists, but the so-called Vichy French. After the Germans steam-rollered into Paris, they took all the good parts of France for themselves and let some tame Frenchmen work out of a little town in the south, governing a sliver of France and most of her colonies. Vichy, famous for not much more than bottled water before, now stood for a divided France. Our brass hoped that the French soldiers in Algieria would see us as their American buddies come to help them liberate France from the Germans. But there was a distinct possibility that since we were secretly landing on their turf in the middle of the night, loaded for bear and backed up by a naval armada, they might think we were liberating Algeria from them. Which was sort of the truth, since they were between us and the Germans in North Africa, and sooner or later we were going to have to mix it up with Rommel and his Afrika Korps.
"Boyle! Are the motorcycles still secure?" the voice of Major Samuel Harding barked in my ear.
"Yes sir!" I was standing next to two U.S. Army Harley-Davidson motorcycles, lashed to the deck. They were for Harding and me. Not only did we have to survive the landing, we had to get these beasts up over the beach and then take them for a joy ride, smack in the middle of the invasion. The guys in the landing craft were from the 168th Combat Team, and their job was to help us get the bikes and ourselves safely ashore, then wave goodbye as we took off into the night on a predawn secret mission. So after landing in North Africa, with the first wave of the first invasion of the war, if I survived, I'd be celebrating my twenty-fourth birthday on a motorcycle ride from hell. Not for the first time, I wondered how a nice Irish kid from Boston like me had gotten himself into this situation.
"Okay, men, listen up!" Harding bellowed over the sounds of the engine and the surf. Bellowing was Harding's normal tone of voice. He was regular Army, in for the long haul. I was ... well, I wasn't.
"I know you've been wondering why you're baby-sitting a couple of staff officers. We're about to hit the beach so now I can tell you." Harding paused and looked at the men. He stood straight, somehow immune to the rocking of the craft, displaying no sign of a normal sense of self-preservation. The rest of us were hunched over, to present less of a target. Harding seemed like he didn't give a damn. A couple of guys straightened up and looked around nervously. When no one got his head blown off, a few more did the same. I made believe I was checking the bikes and stayed low.
"We're landing near Cape Sidi Ferruch," he went on. "The French have a fortified battery at the tip of the cape, directly overlooking our landing beaches. Big 155mm artillery pieces, with new infrared thermal detectors and range finders. If the French government issues orders to resist us, we have to neutralize their artillery before they blow our ships out of the water. Lieutenant Boyle and I will make contact with friendly French officers to ensure that these guns are not used against us. Your job is to get us and the motorcycles off the beach and up to the main road. Do that and we'll do the rest. Understood?"
Pinpoints of light arced up from the beach and then exploded brightly above us, just like fireworks. Night turned to day as parachute flares floated lazily downward, light dancing on the waves and bathing us in a white, ghostly illumination. Before anyone could say a thing, there was a sound like distant thunder. Then bright flashes, reflected off the low, dark clouds. Something told me it wasn't weather.
The major reacted first. "Incoming!" Harding yelled, and then he wasn't standing so straight. We ducked as a shrieking sound split the sky and exploded to our right, sending up a column of water that drenched us on its way down. I wiped seawater off my face and looked toward the shore. Half a dozen spotlights were playing over the water, picking up landing craft as they slowly made their way to Beer Green. Flashes lit the early morning darkness from beyond the searchlights, and more shells whistled toward us. I tried to make myself small and squeezed my eyes shut, as if that might make everything go away. There were explosions all around us. Men screamed, fear making their voices unrecognizable. We rode through near misses that spewed so much seawater into the craft I wondered if we'd sink before we hit land.
Harding tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to our rear, a broad smile on his face. He was calm, really enjoying all this, like a kid at a carnival. I turned and looked back. Two destroyers were slicing across our wakes, their five-inch guns opening up on those searchlights. The noise didn't seem so bad when it was our guys dishing it out. When the first searchlight was hit and went dark, GIs, who had been screaming seconds earlier, cheered. The artillery fire from shore lessened as the destroyers kept up their barrage, and within minutes the searchlights were gone. Everyone was whooping and yelling, trying to forget the rush of fear that had gripped them moments earlier.
"Was that the big guns you were talking about, Major?" The white-faced GI who had wanted to know if we were there yet ignored me this time and went direct to Harding with his question. Smart guy.
"No, Private," Harding answered. "Those were just French 75s. Good field pieces, but popguns compared to their emplaced 155mm guns. Nothing to worry about."
"Yessir," the private said, some color returning to his face. I felt sorry for him, so I didn't point out that a 75mm shell exploding in our landing craft would indeed be something to worry about. No sense upsetting the help.
"Get ready!" Harding yelled. I untied the straps that held the motorcycles in place. As instructed, four GIs grabbed each bike, two on a side. I looked up. We were almost there. I could see the surf breaking on the beach. Other landing craft had already made it to shore. A few isolated shots were fired up and down the beach, sporadically, as if someone was target shooting. Everything seemed to slow down, and I could hear my heart pounding in my chest. My legs felt wobbly. I didn't know if I could make it out of the craft. I knew I didn't want to be here. I just wanted to be back in Boston, on the police force with my Dad and uncles, enjoying my promotion to detective. It had become effective December 1, 1941. I was in clover for a week, then the goddamn Japs had to go and bomb Pearl Harbor. Everything changed, and eleven months later, here I was in the middle of the night with a gungho major, playing secret agent, hoping some Frenchie didn't put a bullet in my skull before I gave the Germans and Italians their chance.
You've got no one to blame but yourself, Billy Boyle, I thought as the landing craft hit the shore with a jolting crunch. The ramp dropped and we were greeted by the sight of white churning foam on a gravel beach, and complete darkness beyond.
"We're here," I said to the talkative private.
"Gee, thanks, Lieutenant," he said as he pushed one of the Harleys into the surf. I followed him onto the shore of the African continent, an unwilling, wet, and shivering soldier in the vanguard of an invading army, longing for home and for Diana. Wondering where she was, and if she were alive or dead.
Chapter TwoThere were no bullets or kisses waiting for us on the Beer Green beach, both of which suited me fine. The GIs struggled in the soft sand with the big Harleys as the first faint glow of false dawn drifted up over the low rolling hills ahead of us. Dunes rose up from the beach, and for every three steps forward we took one back, as we struggled with heavy loads in the yielding white sands.
"Come on, men!" Harding yelled, "Put some muscle into it!"
He was rewarded with grunts and groans and a dirty look or two from the GIs as they pushed and nearly carried the motorcycles through the dunes. Harding was anxious and when he was worried, he yelled. I knew we didn't have much time to make contact with the French officer who was supposed to be waiting to surrender the fort and join up with us. If we didn't get there before he received direct orders from Algiers to resist the invasion, he might change his mind. That would be curtains for a lot of guys following the first wave, especially at full light. Even in the dark, those new thermal detectors could target a blacked-out troop transport and send a thousand soldiers and sailors to the bottom of the Mediterranean.
Harding got to the crest of the next dune and signaled everyone to halt. He knelt and scanned the horizon. I hustled up next to him and looked around. It was still pretty dark, but I could see that the sand dunes gave way ahead to scrub-pine woods that rose gradually from the beach.
"What is it, Major?"
"Shhh!" Harding swiveled his head, listening, then pointed to the left. I didn't hear a thing.
"Truck," he said. Then I heard it. The distant sound of an engine and of heavy tires on a gravel road. "Running with no lights."
The sound came closer, and rose as the truck passed in front of us. I could see a dark shape moving through the pines on the low ridgeline dead ahead.
"The coast road." Harding smiled. I realized that in the five months I had known him, I had never seen Harding smile this much. He looked so natural behind a desk, frowning, that I had never thought about him as a combat soldier. He gave a hand signal for the GIs to move forward, as if he'd been longing for this moment.
I put on my goggles and checked the safety on my .45 caliber Thompson submachine gun. Harding had an old .30 caliber Springfield M1903 bolt-action rifle. He said he preferred 'aimed fire' to automatic weapons. Me, I preferred to put a twenty-round clip from a Tommy gun between Mrs. Boyle's boy and anyone looking for trouble.
Harding revved his bike and glanced at me. I nodded, and played with the throttle of my Harley just to hear that rumble. It felt as if I were home, on motorcycle patrol for the Boston PD. We took off, spitting gravel and dust, toward Cape Sidi Ferruch. Harding was in the lead. I dropped back a bit and rode in the middle of the road, looking back as often as I could to see if anyone was following us. There was only the wind, dancing the dust our bikes kicked up, swirling it around in sudden clouds before it settled down again, unimpressed with our mission.
I don't know what I expected North Africa to look like. I'd imagined lots of sand, and there was plenty of that. But as we followed the road along the coast the land became greener and we passed cultivated fields. We sped through a small village: whitewashed buildings and tall trees lining the road. The houses were thick-walled, with rounded corners and smooth surfaces. Not a clapboard wood frame house in sight. I was a long way from South Boston.
A curve appeared down the road and I watched Harding slow and lean into it, his right foot out as if to hold up the weight of the bike. Then he straightened and gave it full throttle. The man could ride. I remembered a picture of my Uncle Frank sitting on his 1912 Harley, a rookie cop in Southie with his life ahead of him, a big grin plastered over his face, his gloved hands gripping the handlebars. My uncle never came home from the trenches of the First World War. I was glad my Dad and my Uncle Dan didn't know about this Harley ride. Thinking about them and how far apart we actually were made me feel lonely. I turned my head again. The road behind me was empty.
I tried to stop thinking of home. I had to notice everything around me, as if I were following a shooter up the rear stairway of a tenement with no backup. This was Indian country, after all. There were vineyards all around now, rows and rows of neatly planted grapevines, their wooden stakes looking like grave markers casting their shadows downhill as the sun rose. The ground sloped toward the sea on my right but there were rolling hills on the other side. The air was full of the ripe smell of grapes. Algeria didn't look anything like what I'd imagined. War sure is educational.
As we passed some buildings, I saw a few heads peek out of windows and doors and wondered what the locals were thinking. It might not make a whole lot of difference to them whether the French, Germans, Italians, or Americans ran the place. Whoever it was, they'd end up with the same short end of the stick. We might come as liberators, but we weren't planning to give the country back to the original owners.
Harding slowed as we came to a crossroad, and leaned hard right. I followed. We had been running without lights, but now he turned his on and rode just fast enough to control the bike. Ahead, car lights flashed on and off, twice. Harding signaled back, like in the movies.
A young French lieutenant jumped out of the car and waved his arms. "Bienvenu, mes amis Américains!" he welcomed us. He grabbed Harding's hand and pumped it like a politician on St. Paddy's Day, then planted a smack on both his cheeks. I swung my Thompson around and casually held it pointed at the car. There might be surprises inside, or maybe I'd have to defend myself if he tried to kiss me. He jabbered some more French I didn't understand, and then Harding replied slowly enough that I could pick out a few words. I had booked enough Canucks back in my Boston cop days to know a bit of the lingo.
"Where is Colonel Baril? Did he send you?" Harding had asked.
"Oui, oui," the lieutenant answered and then added, in pretty good English, "I will take you to him. You are expected, Major Harding. My name is Georges Dupree, and I am at your service."
"Very well, Lieutenant," Harding answered. "This is my aide, Lieutenant William Boyle."
"Welcome to Algeria, Lieutenant Boyle." He made a slight, graceful bow.
"Call me Billy. Everyone does." I gave him my best Billy boy-o, happy-go-lucky smile.
Harding grimaced and shook his head. Dupree looked at Harding, then back at me. He had thick, wavy black hair slicked back, big dark eyes and a thin Ronald Colman mustache. Not my style, but it looked good on him.
"Everyone? We shall see."
He got into the car, turned it around, and set off. We followed, and within minutes were at the gate of the fort. It looked old and worn, as if it had been there since the days of the Barbary pirates. The outer ring was a mud-brick wall with large double wooden doors that swung open as the car approached. One of our General Lee tanks could've plowed right through it.
Excerpted from THE FIRST WAVE by James R. Ben Copyright © 2007 by James R. Benn. Excerpted by permission.
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