Book review: The Devouring by James R. Benn
In the twelfth instalment of James R. Benn's much-loved wartime mystery series, the inimitable military sleuth Billy Boyle is transported to Switzerland to investigate a murder, monitor dubious bankers and a profiteering Gestapo agent, and help expose the illegal gold transactions coming out of Germany.
Benn’s long-running historical mystery series set during the Second World War has been entertaining world audiences since 2006. Always full of action, murder, suspense, espionage and mystery, the adventures of the Boston detective-turned-army investigator continually address fresh themes and find the charismatic Boyle in different, wide-ranging locations, confronted with a new set of challenges. Incredibly, given that The Devouring marks Boyle’s twelfth outing, you never get that sense of déjà vu.
Previously, Boyle was on assignment in France, the night before the Allied invasion of Normandy, delivering a radio and weapons to the French Resistance and collecting a vital soldier. Here, Benn postpones focusing on D-Day to send Boyle and his sidekick, Lieutenant Piotr ‘Kaz’ Kazimierz, to Switzerland to help Office of Strategic Services (OSS) chief Allen Dulles with Operation Safehaven, an Anglo-American programme to locate and seize Nazi assets when the war is over.
Alas, their mission doesn’t quite go to plan, getting off to a bumpy start the moment they journey through south-eastern France, headed for the Swiss border. The hair-raising flight over the Rhone River near Lyon, taking them past a nearby Luftwaffe airfield, finds tracer bullets ‘dancing against the darkness in graceful, deadly arcs,’ ripping into the wing of their Lysander aircraft and sending them into a fatal spin.
Managing to survive the crash-landing intact, the pair are hounded by tracker dogs and German patrols as they make their way through occupied territory to meet up with their French Resistance contact, Anton Lasho, tasked with smuggling them across the Swiss border.
Lasho, a member of the Sinti ethnic group, turns out to be an ‘unhinged’ man of few words, ‘at ease with the thought of death,’ who hates the Germans and has a problem with the Resistance. His wife and children were captured by Swiss border guards and handed over to the Germans to become prisoners in a Nazi labour camp and he has since become a notorious ‘stalking killer’ who murders every Nazi he can find.
His wild, reckless actions have made an enemy of the Resistance who would likely kill him if they found him but, as far as Boyle and Kaz are concerned, this efficient, revenge-fuelled Nazi slayer is exactly what they need to guide them safely to their destination city of Bern in Switzerland.
They swiftly discover that Bern is ‘a city of spies’ where ‘everyone watches everyone else’ and it is positively heaving with all sorts of German agents working at cross-purposes. Boyle and Kaz have been brought in to cultivate relationships with Swiss bankers and glean valuable intelligence on Georg Hannes, a German Gestapo agent ‘who is good at getting people to hand over their money in exchange for their lives’ before releasing them ‘dead broke to an internment camp.’
Attempting to learn the truth behind the death of a Swiss banking official, Boyle and Kaz, aided by Lasho, find themselves in one perilous situation after another, up against dangerous Gestapo agents, crooked bankers and government officials, Nazi sympathizers and slippery profiteers with dark secrets.
Incorporating historical details and characters into a thrilling plot, Benn shines a stark light on Switzerland’s role in the war, from its questionable neutrality and harsh border control, to its objectionable banking and trade arrangements with Germany, providing ‘war materials directly to Nazi Germany’ and aiding the Nazis in laundering stolen gold, much of it confiscated from citizens of nations the Germans conquered, including gold fillings and wedding rings extracted from concentration camp victims and melted down into gold bars.
The Devouring is another compelling Billy Boyle mystery. Well-plotted and full of intense action, intrigue and historical insight, James R. Benn’ series shows no signs of slowing down.
(Soho Crime, hardcover, £22.99)