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 the Author's Note at the end.
SOLEMN GRAVES (HistMys-Billy Boyle-France-1944) – VG+
Benn, James R.Soho Crime – Sept 2018