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Benn, James R - 'Blood Alone'
Paperback: 320 pages (Oct. 2009) Publisher: SOHO Press ISBN: 1569475954

Billy Boyle wakes up in a field hospital in Sicily with amnesia. Not knowing who he is, or what he is doing there, he temporarily joins the command of Colonel Jim Gavin, a mixed force of paratroopers, infantry and rear area personnel, who defend the beachhead against a German counter attack. When he searches his clothes trying to establish his identity he finds that he has in his pocket a golden yellow silk handkerchief with the letter L stitched in the middle.

When Quartermaster Rocko the only person whose name he knows on the island is murdered and Roberto Bellestri, the Italian soldier who brought him back across the front-line ends up with his throat cut Billy knows he is in deep trouble.

His memory gradually returns and he realises he must have been in Sicily before the invasion on a secret mission. Is he an assassin? What kind of man is he?

Accompanied by a released Italian POW, Sciafani, a Sicilian doctor, Billy sets off to complete a half remembered mission to deliver a message to Don Calogero Vizzini, head of the local Mafia, from Mafia mobster Lucky Luciano. The message will save Allied and Sicilian lives, but gangsters Vito Genovese, Legs Lapada and rogue members of the American military are looking for Billy and the handkerchief that signifies who are Luciano's accredited representatives.

Billy and Sciafani meet up with Lieutenant Harry Dickinson and Kaz, a Polish emigre British officer, who were part of the original mission and they go on the run from the mobsters, military police, Mafia, Italian MVSN Fascists and crooked members of the American Military Government of Occupied Territories.

What is the mobster's motive, and how will it affect Billy's mission to meet with Mafia boss Don Calo, who coincidentally knows Doctor Sciafani very well?

This is the third Billy Boyle World War II mystery written by James R Benn about a Boston Irish policeman, who is both General Eisenhower's nephew and his special investigator. I was slightly confused by the cover art, which reminded me of the war comics I read as a child. Interestingly the title comes from a 1914 quote by Benito Mussolini when he was still a socialist "Blood alone moves the wheels of history".

The story itself was exciting although slightly predictable, and is interspersed with passages where Billy philosophizes about his life as a Boston cop, his family, honour, and his identity. Boston Irish don't have baseball in common with Sicilians but they do share concepts of loyalty, honour, and an understanding of identity. The characters charge round the Sicilian countryside near Agrigento and Porto Empedocle, familiar to lovers of Andrea Camilleri's books, and Billy considers the traumatic events that took place in Vichy North Africa in the previous book in the series.

I enjoyed reading most of the book but at times the first person narrative and the repetitive explanations of what happened to who, and when, and where, slowed the action and became slightly boring. It was unfortunate that this was a book that could not quite decide whether it was a straight war story, or a detective story, or a deeper discussion of honour and identity.

But that said, over my right shoulder, as I write this, is a scene painted by my RAMC uncle in Algeria in 1943, before he and the Allied advance moved on to Sicily and Italy. I have nothing but admiration for those men of many nations who fought in that almost forgotten campaign, therefore any book that commemorates them is worthy of an attentive readership.

Norman Price, England
February 2010

Norman blogs at
Crime Scraps.

More European crime fiction reviews can be found on the Reviews page.

last updated 28/02/2010 13:42