Solemn Graves

Solemn Graves

by James R. Benn

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781616958497
Publisher: Soho Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 09/04/2018
Series: Billy Boyle World War II Mystery Series , #13
Pages: 360
Sales rank: 51,166
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

James R. Benn is the author of the Billy Boyle World War II mysteries. The debut, Billy Boyle, was named one of five top mysteries of 2006 by Book Sense and was a Dilys Award nominee. A Blind Goddess was longlisted for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and The Rest Is Silence was a Barry Award nominee. Benn, a former librarian, splits his time between the Gulf Coast of Florida and Connecticut with his wife, Deborah Mandel.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One
 
The first dead body I saw in Normandy was a cow, tangled in the branches of a shattered tree at a crossroads by the edge of a field, a good thirty feet off the ground. More of them lay scattered across the pasture, the thick green grass dotted with gaping holes of black, smoking earth.
      A few cows were still upright. One wandered into the ditch alongside the road, trailing intestines and bellowing, her big brown eyes crazed with fear and pain.
      “Stop,” Sergeant Allan Fair said from the front seat, placing a hand on the driver’s arm. “Easy like.” The driver, a skinny kid who looked like he might shave soon, if he lived that long, let the jeep roll to a halt. Fair got out, planted his feet, raised his M-1 to his shoulder, and squeezed off a round that found a home between those two brown eyes. The cow collapsed into the ditch, and silence filled the air.
      “Damn,” Fair said to no one in particular, and got back in the jeep. The driver eased into first gear and took off slowly, carefully navigating around a shell hole on one side of the hard-packed dirt road. We passed a sign at the crossroads, tilted lazily to one side and peppered with shrapnel.
      Dust means death.
      As we drove on, the roadside was decorated with the burned-out hulks of vehicles whose drivers had not heeded the warning. The bovine casualties had likely been the result of a nervous driver who barreled down the road, kicking up a dust storm and making it through before the German shells rained down on the intersection.
      “I didn’t think we were close to the front yet,” I said from the back seat, as we proceeded at a dust-free twenty miles an hour under the hot morning sun. “I mean, for Kraut artillery spotters.”
      “It’s close enough. They’re up in those hills,” Fair said, sweeping a hand toward the distant rise to the south. “With a good pair of binoculars, they can pick out a swirl of dust five, ten miles away. Plus, they left spotters behind, hiding out in barns or in the woods.”
      “Scuttlebutt is, they pay the French for any dope they bring them about targets,” the driver said.
      “Hard to imagine any Frenchman would sell information to the Germans,” Big Mike said.
      “How long you been in Normandy?” Fair asked.
      “We got here yesterday,” Big Mike said.
      “Figures,” was all Fair said.
      “We seen pictures,” Big Mike said. “People throwing flowers at GIs, stuff like that.”
      “Anyone throw flowers at you, kid?” Fair asked the driver.
      “A Kraut threw his helmet at me when his rifle jammed,” he said. “But no flowers.”
      “See? So don’t believe everything you read in Stars and Stripes,” Fair said. He spat into the road, ending the conversation.
      Big Mike looked at me, eyebrows raised. Or looked down at me, I should say. Big Mike—Staff Sergeant Mike Miecznikowski—was tall and broad and took up most of the cramped back seat.
      “I was looking forward to the flowers, Billy,” he said. “In Sicily, all they threw were stones.”
      The jeep moved slowly, past open fields and into more hedgerows. Here, the roadway became a narrow, sunken lane with a deep ditch on either side. For centuries, farmers had been mounding earth to mark the boundaries of their fields and to keep livestock in. Topping it all off was a tangle of trees and bushes, their roots intertwined with the gritty gravel, dirt, and stone base.
      Hedgerows made every pasture a fortress, every lane a death trap.
      “How long have you been here, Sergeant Fair?” I asked. Fair had been ordered to take Big Mike and me from First Army headquarters to the outskirts of Bricqueville, where a dead body was waiting for us. Not the sort that ended up in a tree or torn apart by explosives, but the kind that found itself wearing a slit throat in the sitting room of a French villa, safe behind the lines, and wearing the uniform of a US Army captain. Simply said, it was murder, an almost quaint and old-fashioned custom these days. Killed In Action was the usual phrase, and here in hedgerow country—the French call it the bocage—there was a lot of it going around.
      “I been on the line since D+3,” Fair said, his voice a low mutter as he turned to study me. He did his best to look unimpressed. My ODs were clean, and from the SHAEF patch on my shoulder, I was obviously nothing but a headquarters feather merchant out for a joyride. Fair was headed back to the front, where he’d been since three days after D-Day. His olive drabs were worn and muddy, bleached by the summer sun to a shade not found in any Quartermaster’s stores. The bags under his eyes were as dark as midnight sin, and crow’s-feet arced from the corner of his eye, an occupational hazard from squinting over the sights of an M1.
      His mouth was a thin slit of insolence. His eyes were narrowed, wary, and suspicious. He didn’t bother saying “sir,” but I didn’t care about that. At the front, there was an unspoken rank, and it wasn’t based on an officer’s bars or a non-com’s stripes. It had to do with how long a man faced death and kept going despite it. All Fair knew was that Big Mike and I still had the smell of London about us, and that made us nothing but nuisance cargo in his book.
      I didn’t blame him one damn bit.
      “Anything else, Captain?” Fair said, his eyes scanning the road as it curved ahead. Which was obviously of greater interest to him than any stupid questions a desk jockey from Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force had. Probably why he was still alive.
     He clamped a hand on the driver’s arm, signaling him to roll to a dustless halt.
      “Look, he’s making a run for it,” Fair said, pointing to a flurry of road dust off to our right, where the land sloped away.
      “Who?” Big Mike asked.
      “The jerk who got all those cows killed,” the driver said.
      “They’re dead meat,” Fair said, leaning back and shaking a Lucky Strike loose from a crumpled pack. He lit one, ignoring the sound of distant booms and the screaming crescendo of shells coming in from the German lines. “The Krauts got a crossroads over there zeroed in.”
      Explosions crumped a mile or so away, just ahead of the dust cloud, belching smoke and fire as they ripped through trees and shrubs.
      Then it was over. Fair drew in his smoke as if it were oxygen, cupping the cigarette even in broad daylight.
      “Shouldn’t we see if they need help?” I asked.
      “Naw,” Fair said, shaking his head at what to him was obviously a silly question. “Lemme finish my smoke.” He did, tossing the butt into the road as two more shells landed out where smoke from a burning vehicle was already curling into the sky.
      “Krauts always send a few in after the fact,” Fair said, signaling the driver to move on. “To pick off guys who don’t know any better.”
      Meaning us.
      The driver eased his way around the curve, keeping the speed down. Down so much we could have walked and kept pace. But I didn’t complain, since I liked not being blown up.
      “They ain’t going to like keeping a stiff around this long,” Big Mike said, meaning our murder victim, who had apparently bled out in the sitting room of a farmhouse.
      “There’s stiffs all over the place,” Fair said. “Ours, Krauts, and plenty of French who can’t get out of the way fast enough.”
      “Out of the way of what?” Big Mike asked.
      “Pissed-off Krauts, our planes bombing and strafing the hell out of everything, artillery, land mines, drunk GIs, you name it,” Fair said. “If I was them, I’d have gone south.”
      “I think they like the idea of being liberated,” Big Mike said.
      “Yeah, it’s working out just swell for them, isn’t it?” Fair said.
      He had a point. Along our section of the line, the bridgehead from the beaches to the front lines was no more than eighteen miles deep, after a month of hard fighting and heavy casualties. It was a killing slog for the GIs, but French civilians were often worse off, caught in a cross fire of bullets, shells, bombs, and brutality.
      Things weren’t going all that well, truth be told. By now we should have broken out of the bridgehead, our tanks rolling toward Paris. But the Allied armies were still cooped up in Normandy, fighting for every hill and hedgerow and paying a heavy price.
      “Look,” our driver said, pointing to the source of the smoke. A supply truck was on its side, burning, the rubber tires sending up thick, acrid smoke. Two bodies were in the road, thrown from the cab when it had been hit.
      A couple of Frenchmen knelt by the bodies. They glanced up as we quietly rolled to a halt twenty yards away. One, caught in the act of rifling through the pockets of a dead GI, hastily stuffed a pack of smokes in his jacket. His pal let the arm of the other corpse flop to the ground as he filched a wristwatch.
      Both soldiers were shoeless, their boots laced and draped around the necks of the Frenchmen. Farmers, by the rough cut of their worn clothes, although most residents of Normandy looked ill fed and poorly clothed these days.
      “Goddammit,” Fair said, stepping out of the jeep and advancing upon the men. I followed, noticing bits of paper scattered in the dirt around the bodies. Photographs and letters, tossed aside as the bodies were looted.
      The men muttered in rapid-fire French, sounding apologetic, shrugging and smiling as they gestured over the two corpses. I couldn’t make out what they were saying, but I could guess. Sorry, we found them like this. It is a shame for good boots to go to waste when we have so little.
      Fair shot them. Two sharp cracks, a bullet each to the chest. They were both dead before the second shell casing hit the ground, bounced, and rolled to a stop.
      “Fucking looters,” Fair said. He slung his rifle and moved the GIs off the road, taking a dog tag from each of them. They wore the same shoulder patch as Fair, the red-and-blue 30th Infantry Division insignia. He gathered up papers and stuffed them inside each man’s jacket. Then he took the boots and watches from the Frenchmen, left a pair of boots next to each GI, and shoved the wristwatches into their shirt pockets. He stood for a moment, shaking his head slowly.
      “It’s not right,” our driver said, his hands resting on the steering wheel. “Stealing from the dead. Especially when them boys are from our own outfit.” He sounded angry and apologetic at the same time.
      “They were idiots, driving like that,” Fair said, stuffing the dog tags into his jacket as he returned to the jeep. “But no one has a right to take from our dead. Right, Captain?”
      “You could have turned them over to the military police, Sergeant,” I said.
      “What, and make you and your pal walk? Sorry, Captain, but I got my orders. No one loots our dead, and I take you to Bricqueville. So mount up.”
     We drove on at a snail’s pace, past the dead, both the young and foolish Americans who had come to liberate France, and the old and foolish French who stole their boots. None of them expected to die today on this dusty stretch of road, but there they were, shattered bodies in a ditch.
      “I don’t know if I would’ve shot them,” Big Mike said in a low voice, leaning in close. “But I wanted to.”
      “Yeah, I didn’t like seeing them paw over our boys,” I said. Which was true enough. But I also didn’t like Sergeant Fair much either. Maybe because he did what I, like Big Mike, wanted to do myself. It’s not pleasant to see the worst of yourself in another man, so I tried to think about something else. Like the dead body waiting for us down the road.
     Dust means death. Like that line from Genesis that scared me back in Sunday school: For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.
      “Keep it slow,” I told the driver. “The dead can wait.”

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Solemn Graves 4.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 14 reviews.
TrissBS 4 months ago
Solemn Graves. James Benn. The most recent in Benn’s series set against World War II. Billy Boyle, young Boston police detective, was tapped by distant relative, cousin Ike (yes, that Ike) to handle investigations that are not exactly military. By this time, he has been through a lot and grown a lot too. He is in Nomandy soon after D-Day. While the Allies cannot seem to get momentum for the drive to Paris, the Germans are retreating, life for the French is in chaos, and an American officer turns up murdered in a French farmhouse. Billy and his team, Big Mike and exiled Polish baron Kaz, must find out why. Wartime grudges, vengeance by various groups of French partisans ( or are they?), a mysterious silent young woman, and a very odd Army unit full of theater people and designers all complicate the investigation. The history here is expertly handled, adding a rich background to an intirugingly baffling crime story. Another powerful page turner for me, which doesn’t happen that often. Strongly recommended.
Anonymous 8 months ago
As always a great read.
Anonymous 4 months ago
I love the short history given at the end of each book.
Anonymous 6 months ago
Highly recommend. Well written, very good story, interesting characters.
Anonymous 6 months ago
I have read all the Billy Boyle series so far. They get better and better. As a WWII history buff, the true life characters mixed into the stories, makes this series stand out! Thanks James Benn. Looking forward to the next chapter in Billys life.
Anonymous 6 months ago
I love this series. The reality and fiction is amazing to read and keeps me wanting more.
Anonymous 6 months ago
I have read the Billy Boyle World War II mysteries since the beginning. In this 13th entry, the dreariness and horror of the war is even more apparent than usual. This could be read as a standalone, but the reading of the earlier series books really would make the book more easily understood and enjoyed. Billy Boyle is a young Boston cop, from an Irish family that already reluctantly shed blood for European wars. But Billy is also fictionally Dwight Eisenhower's nephew, and enlists hoping to be assigned less dangerous investigative work. He is called on to look into the murder of an American officer at a French manor occupied by a widow in Calvados country. There are a lot of characters, and conflicting Resistance groups, and sometimes motives and explanations are a tad confused. I thought this just added to the general mood of pandemonium and disarray in the midst of conflict. Billy gets a bit philosophical in this one, as do some of the other characters. The author does a great job of peeling away some superficialities to talk about battle, justice, death and loyalty. A mood of fatigue and weariness permeates the book. These books are interesting and instructive, and in my opinion have gotten stronger as the series has progressed. Thanks to the publisher and to Net Galley for providing me with an ARC in return for my honest review.
Anonymous 6 months ago
First Sentence: The first dead body I saw in Normandy was a cow, tangled in the branches of a shattered tree at a crossroads by the edge of a field, a good thirty feet off the ground. D-Day has passed but France is still a very dangerous place to be as the war goes on. A man wearing the uniform of an American Army Officer is found murdered in a manor house. Captain Billy Boyle, Staff Sergeant Mike "Big Mike" Miecznikowski go to view the body and ultimately request that Lt. Piotr "Kaz" Kazimierz join them. With spies and informants everywhere, the team must act carefully not to expose the nearby 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, aka, the Ghost Army as doing so could mean disaster for the Allies. It's an effective opening that reminds one that the cost of war can be more than human lives. However, it does get confusing as there are a lot of characters with different ranks from different areas of responsibility who come and go without our knowing quite how they fit within the plot. Such, one supposes, is the confusion of war. Madam Janvier, the owner of the manor, presents a small picture of life during the Occupation and a realistic view—"The Germans killed many. Took the Jews and Communists off to God knows where. So many of the old people died last winter, with not enough to eat or fuel to stay warm. Forgive me if I make light of your American chocolate and coffee. Otherwise, I should only weep." Benn is very good at conveying both the realities of war—"Liberation wasn't always about the liberators. Today, it had been about power." At the same time, he is about to balance that with a touch of humor—"GIs worked at unloading a truck, carrying cases of grenades and Spam, each deadly enough in their own way." One of the many things so interesting about reading Been is learning facts about the war few knew. Here, we learn about the 603 Camouflage Engineers and the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops. It is fascinating—"It's like Broadway invades Europe."—but this is no Bob Hope show for the troops. This was about saving the Allied troops while defeating the Germans, and the Black Legion in Detroit. Benn has created a wonderful, and interesting, set of characters. For those new to the series, take heart. About one-quarter of the way into the story, one does learn of Billy's background and his relationship with Kaz, an extremely wealthy Polish baron from a country to which he couldn't return. Kaz has known devastating personal loss yet chooses to work with Allies. For those who've read previous books, it is nice to have Diana Seaton, Billy's love, back on the scene, especially with the revelation which follows. It is also nice the Benn recounts an accurate, non-Disney, account of "Sleeping Beauty. In this time of division over immigration, it makes one wonder how many may be descended from the German and Italian POW soldiers who were sent to the U.S. to work the farms. It's an interesting thought. At the same time, there's nothing like a small truth to make one stop and consider—"'What was it you realized?" "That hatred is incompatible with hope.'" Big Mike, a former cop, knows how to get things done and how to put help others put things into perspective "Solemn Graves" is really well done for both mystery and history fans alike. It has plenty of action, as well as suspense related to the murder. The motive is very well done and is as old as time. Do be certain to read
Anonymous 6 months ago
With every new book I am amazed how well these books tell the story of the World War 2 fight and great mysteries at the same time. They not only tell the story of the war and the characters in it but also some of the famous people to come out of it. Great writing also tells the story of the average soldier of which my grandfather was one. I am always anxious to read the next new story from this very talented author. And to think I only started reading this series because the first book was a free book Friday offering from Barnes and Noble on my Nook.
glauver 6 months ago
ames R. Benn's Billy Boyle WWII mystery series is at its best when the action takes place near the front lines or centers on military crimes. The 13th entry finds Billy and his team investigating the death of a U.S. Army major in a French farmhouse near the front lines in Normandy. D Day was six weeks ago and the invasion is stalled. The setting allows Benn to write plenty of scenes about men in combat that remind us of just how grim the Second World War was. Billy has progressed from a naive Boston cop to a hardened GI investigator over the course of the series, but he is still capable of compassion and pity for the war's victims. His musings over war's cruelties and Benn's illumination of some of the war's more obscure episodes lift the Billy Boyle series above the average historical whodunit.
Anonymous 7 months ago
This is one of the best yet!
Anonymous 8 months ago
Loved it. Have read them all. Especially love the true details that Benn weaves into his stories.
Anonymous 8 months ago
Thanks again Mr. Benn
tedfeit0 8 months ago
Quinn Colson finally is going to tie the knot, but events tend to interfere with the planning, much less the ceremony itself. It’s a good thing Maggie Powers, his betrothed, is an understanding woman. As sheriff of Tibbehah County, Mississippi, Colon is hoping for some quiet, but an invasion of a couple of gangsters, a drug war and assorted underworld internecine strife tends to interfere. Moreover, Quinn’s best man, Boom Kimbrough, gets a job driving trucks for a shady outfit that traffics in drugs and women. When a couple of wannabes, the Pritchard brothers, who grow the best weed, want to branch out and hijack Boom’s semi, the gangsters blame Boom as a conspirator and almost kill him, giving Quinn additional incentive to take action. The latest in this long-running series, the novel is written in the inimitable style Ace Atkins has developed to portray the south inhabited by the characters he writes about. The series consists of excellent crime novels, filled with colorful characters. Recommended.