In his first novel about Billy Boyle, James R. Benn labored a bit too strenuously to draw a picture of a young soldier-sleuth who epitomized everything decent and admirable about World War II America. Benn’s hero is still wide-eyed and bushy-tailed in THE FIRST WAVE (Soho, $24), but his character has deepened, as have his thoughts. Now he earns respect for the good he does, rather than what he stands for. “War sure is educational,” marvels this Irish cop from South Boston, who thought he was getting a cushy patronage job when Uncle Ike (a distant relative better known as the commander of United States forces in Europe) claimed the “rosy-cheeked youth” as his personal private investigator. Instead, the kid saw plenty of action on the European front and learned enough about undercover police work to pass what even his uncle had to admit was a tough initiation.
“The First Wave” finds Boyle coming ashore in the 1942 Allied landing in French North Africa. He’s on a dangerous, if vague, mission to rally support from officers in the Vichy government forces in Algiers and to free a group of French resistance fighters, his English girlfriend among them. A better cop than secret agent, Boyle also gets wind of a smuggling ring that’s depriving soldiers of the new miracle drug, penicillin, and during the course of his investigation discovers that even in the middle of a war a combat hospital offers no refuge from noncombat crimes like drug trafficking, high-stakes gambling, rape and murder.
In granting Boyle a measure of maturity, Benn takes care not to put a muzzle on him. The brash kid from Southie is still open, direct and fearless in his manner (and in his wonderfully loose-jointed use of the English language) and in no danger of losing his cover as a “happy-go-lucky Yank.” But even amid the excitement of the spirited wartime storytelling, Benn allows Boyle’s experiences to change him in ways both subtle and dramatic. Becoming sensitized to the status of female officers — paid half the salary of men, unable to issue an order to the lowliest private and denied the dignity of a salute — is one of those subtle ways. Seeing himself from the perspective of a people whose country his own has invaded is a more striking leap for Boyle, as is his new willingness to judge foreigners by their own standards. In one painful moment of introspection, he even questions his family’s rigid beliefs. Where he comes from, that’s real bravery.