New York Times article (Connecticut/Region Section) 9/23/07

For Writer, ‘Uncle Ike’ Hits a Nerve

Deborah Mandel

Published: September 23, 2007


In the Region

Long Island, Westchester, Connecticut and New Jersey

A DECADE ago, James R. Benn bought a house from the man who ran the town dump. After moving in, he found parts of an old car — a DeSoto built in the 1940s — in the heavily wooded yard. This discovery turned out to be telling, because Mr. Benn would soon begin seriously digging into that era.

When he turned 50 eight years ago, he told his wife, Deborah Mandel, a psychotherapist, that he wanted to write novels. Yes, he would keep his day job as head of information technology for West Hartford’s schools. But nights and weekends, he would pursue what he called a “business decision.”

Mr. Benn had read that historical fiction was the fastest-growing genre, and that there was a dearth of World War II tales. A former librarian, he had always been a reader of history and mystery. A trip to Germany offered inspiration; he learned stories of ordinary people who, in the maelstrom of war, performed heroic acts to save lives.

But there is a big difference between those who dream of writing and those who actually do it. Mr. Benn did it “by the seat of my pants,” he said, and with a ton of research. He produced a novel, “Desperate Ground,” published by a small press. The book introduced a character named Billy Boyle — a brash former cop and distant relative of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. And it gave the writer an idea for a series of mysteries based on this oddball character.

Yet Mr. Benn wouldn’t write a traditional plot. There would be no dead body in the first 10 pages, and there wouldn’t always be three obvious suspects. The story, instead, would be character-driven, and once readers fell in love with Billy Boyle, they would follow him into an array of tight wartime squeezes.

But if the idea was an inspired one, the publishing world was not immediately swept up in the euphoria. Over two years, Mr. Benn sent three chapters and a summary of “Billy Boyle” to about 200 agents, all of whom passed.

“I almost gave up,” the author recalled. Then he tried one “last-gasp mailing” to a few agencies that specifically represent authors of historical fiction. Six months later, Mr. Benn was in the shower when his wife shouted, “You’ll want to take this call.” It was from John F. Baker at Barbara Braun Associates in New York, who loved what he had read. This led to a contract with Soho Press for that book and for the next in the series, “The First Wave,” published this month.

Soon after “Billy Boyle” appeared last year, it seemed obvious that Mr. Benn’s idea was prescient, even if 200 agents hadn’t thought so. Readers e-mailed the author and the publisher about one particular aspect of the novel — and how it had resonated.

Timing is everything. Mr. Benn’s decision to connect Boyle with Eisenhower, who eventually commanded all Allied forces in Europe, had made the difference. With our country involved in a controversial war in Iraq, there is nostalgia for a period when moral authority was clear. “Eisenhower,” Mr. Benn says, “is seen as avuncular, wise, weary with the weight of the world on his shoulders.” A leader readers trust.

This response made it necessary for Mr. Benn to rewrite slightly the third book in the series, “Blood Alone,” to include more of Uncle Ike.

For Mr. Benn, early September was busy — polishing “Blood Alone,” hatching the plot for the fourth Billy Boyle book, and doing signings for “The First Wave.” The kickoff party was Labor Day weekend at the Lyme Public Library. On a gorgeous afternoon, the building was packed, and some of the people were in uniform.

Before Mr. Benn spoke, World War II re-enactors, around a table of battlefield relics, explained the proper way to toss a grenade, and other tactics. There was a lot of interest in this. For all the destruction and death, World War II remains the “good war.”

Then, a week after the party, came a laudatory review in The New York Times. The critic, Marilyn Stasio, called Mr. Benn’s handling of his main character’s experiences “both subtle and dramatic,” and described Boyle as “open, direct and fearless in his manner (and in his wonderfully loose-jointed use of the English language) ... ”

For Mr. Benn, it was a sweet ending to the beginning of a late-blooming business career.

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