Monday, December 21, 2009

Billy Boyle and Ireland's secret World War II history

I neglected to mention yesterday what sparked my interest in James R. Benn's Billy Boyle novels. Here's the beyond-borders connection:

Benn's current and fourth novel in his World War II-based series, Evil for Evil, has Boyle in Northern Ireland investigating theft of arms from a U.S. base for possible use in a Nazi-sponsored IRA uprising. (For some reason, IRA ties to Nazi Germany are not much discussed in the United States.)

The first book, Billy Boyle, which I'm reading now, has explored no such politically dangerous territory yet. But it does lay the groundwork for interesting internal conflict. Boyle, a young Irish American police officer from South Boston, heads to war in London with no particular military ambitions and a family legacy of ill will toward the English.

Young Billy, also the novel's first-person narrator, scorns advice that he be discreet about flaunting his American cash in front of the beleaguered and relatively impoverished English — until, on his way to his new assignment, he sees a wounded woman flashing the V-for-victory sign as she is carried from a pile of rubble on a stretcher:

"`Welcome to London,' Harding said as the traffic moved forward.

"`Yes, sir,' Maybe I wouldn't wave those sawbucks around for a while."
This shapes up as a compelling, politically charged take on the loss-of-innocence-in-war theme. It also makes me wonder how big a readership Benn has in South Boston.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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41 Comments:

Anonymous solo said...

Peter! You old devil, you! You're really trying to stir thngs up with this post, aren't you? Think you'll get those mad Irishmen from Belfast to South Boston at each others' throats. And all because your last post on Billy Boyle didn't get any comments. Shame on you! Don't you realize there's a peace process on, man. Any ill-advised comments could bring the whole thing crashing down.
OK, only kidding or funnin', as you might say.
Speaking as someone from the green end of the tricolour, as opposed to the orange end, politics is very simple. In politics, my enemy's enemy is my frind. Hence the IRA's flirtation with the Nazis. As also an earlier flirtation with the French.
But enough with the politics. As a recent convert to crime fiction and an even more recent convert to cf blogs I've been doing a little bit of research and I've come across a couple of comments that cast you in a better light (not that you really need to be cast in a better light, of course)
One was a response on Stuart Neville's blog to his Twitter competition where you said:

Ah, Christ on a bike, I thought you wanted me to write a story with 140 characters.

Very funny.

I've also been checking out your archives where I came across the following exchange from 2006:

Uriah Robinson: I am ratty today because my son borrowed the second of our two very small cars, and got hit by a bus. He is OK but sorting out insurance is going to be a problem as the bus did not stop!

Peter Rozovsky: And I hope that insurance situation resolves itself without becoming too much of a bother. Given the nature of the problem, perhaps I shoud refrain from recommending Giampiero Rigosi's Night Bus, whose protagonist is a bus driver in Bologna.

Really, Peter, if you were an Irishman, rather than a modest Canadian, you would share this wit with us a little more often.

December 21, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, I had a feeling this post might raise a hackle or two.

I thank you for your kind words. And now, will I sound the earnest, conciliatory Canadian if I suggest that little good would be served by pretending history is simpler than it is? Perhaps even that it might be possible to cast Republicans in a sympathetic light by reflecting on the types of allies they were forced to seek?

I don't know much about Irish history, and what little I know I have learned in the last two years. The biggest lesson I've learned is that that history is a good deal more complex than what we get in America. I'd never known there was such thing as Irish-speaking Protestant nationalists until I heard about Wolf Tone. I'd never known about the depth of the divisions on the Irish-therefore-Catholic-therefore-nationalist side until I visited the Republican Museum on the Falls Road and found no mention of Michael Collins.

Quite naturally, too, I read a bit about Sean Russell when I made this post.

I must tell you that my Irish acquaintances on the green and the orange sides are united only by their common sense.

December 21, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Er, my reading of Irish history also taught me that the man's name was Wolfe Tone.

December 21, 2009  
Anonymous solo said...

It's a funny thing, Peter, but as a Dubliner I was almost as far removed from those problems in the North as you were in Canada or Philidelphia (apart from the odd car bomb). Of course, I heard a lot more about them than you would have but hearing about them and experiencing them are two different things.
All I hope is that we're over the worst of it and Billy Boyle is nothing more than an interesting historical character.
Struggles over power and national identity don't show up anybody in a good light and in that the Irish are no different from anybody else.
Will Belgium still exist in ten years time with it's Flemish and French speakers at each others throats. For that matter, will Canada, with it's cultural and linguistic divides, still be around a few years from now?
I hope so but us human beings do have a tendency to get het up over very small differences.
I like crime fiction that deals with matters such as these but only when it's other people's problems, not my own!

December 21, 2009  
Anonymous SOLO said...

Speaking of Wolfe Tone, have you seen the movie version of Cornell Woolrich's The Phantom Lady? It's a great movie (Elisha Cook Jnr particulary good). The baddie is played by Franchot Tone. Apparently, he was a relative of Wolfe Tone. I'm afraid to admit I'm the kind of simpleton who enjoys connections like that. It's on YouTube BTW

December 21, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Funny you should mention your remoteness as a Dubliner from the problems in the North. Almost all my acquaintance with Ireland is through crime fiction and the people who write it and sell it. Garbhan Downey's novel Running Mates contains what I found quite a touching exchange between a newspaperman/politician from Derry and a political operative from the Irish Republic:

"Stan took a small sip of his Powers and sighed into the phone. `Look, Sonny,' he said, `I'm no innocent. I know most of you guys down there would like to tie a big plastic bag around the Six Counties and hold it till our feet stop kicking. Let's face it, we're the child you gave up for adoption when you got knocked up too young. But like it or not, the secret's out now — and we want our mummy.'"

Downey, a Derryman, is very funny and very much worth reading.

I haven't read Evil for Evil, and I don't know how large a role Billy's Irish ethnicity plays in the rest of the books. The second, third and fifth in the series seem to have no special concern with Ireland, from what I read about the books.

December 21, 2009  
Anonymous solo said...

Incidentally, Franchot was married to Joan Crawford for four years. After the divorce he had this to say about her: 'She's like that old joke about Philadelphia: First prize, 4 years with Joan. Second prize, 8 years with her.'

December 21, 2009  
Anonymous solo said...

Peter
I think it must be very hard for NI writers to write about the place and rise above their ethnic or religious backgrounds and for those that have done so they have my congratulations.

December 21, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I hae not seen The Phantom Lady, but I will look for it immediately. Like all right-thinking people, I regard Elisha Cook Jr. as one of the defining presences in old crime movies, and I loved his performance as the zesty taxi driver in Hammett.

December 21, 2009  
Anonymous solo said...

Obviously, Franchot was never in Philidelphia

December 21, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Hmm, what would W.C. Fields have said had he been married to Joan Crawford?

December 21, 2009  
Anonymous solo said...

I haven't seen Hammet, so I'll have to look that up. It's appropriate that he was in that given the role he played in The Maltese Falcon. I think he was a bit miscast in that as he was usually referred to as the kid when he was 38 at the time! But I'm a big fan of his, too. The Big Sleep, Shane, and The Killing just wouldn't be the same without him.

December 21, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'd say it's less a matter of rising above than of occasionally standing aside, or perhaps of being able to take a more intimate and therefore occasionally more critical view of one's own side. But the divides must be tempting territory for authors.

Brian McGilloway sets his novels on the border between the north and the south. His first is called Borderlands and, yes, it begins with a body found straddling the border. Interesting, too, that McGilloway, who is from, has as his protagonist a Garda -- though one who works well with his Northern colleague.

December 21, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, he looked like a kid even then, which is why it was so much fun to see having such a good time in his late seventies. (Hammett was released in 1982, and Cook plays the talkative taxi driver who knows his way around the city. I think Ross Thomas had a role in the movie as well.)

December 22, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I didn't mean to be cryptic about Brian McGilloway's place of residence. He's from Derry, too.

December 22, 2009  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

I just read Andrew Roberts' New History of World War 2. Funnily enough just like Martin Gilbert's "definitive" History of WW2 the Nazi bombing of Belfast when a third of the housing stock was destroyed and 1000 people were killed didnt even get a mention. In fact Belfast isnt even in the index.

December 22, 2009  
Anonymous John H said...

Can't say that I know much about the troubles in Ireland but I knew a few people that were in Belfast in the mid 70s. They never really figured it out either as from their standpoint the conflict should have been resolved many years ago. They did agree that people were simply so caught up by their "politics" there was no reasoning with them. Seems like that's a common problem around the world. Old wounds never disappear. We had our civil war here in the states 150 or so years ago and there's still some ingrained dislikes in people.

Sounds like a good read. I enjoy stuff from that period.

December 22, 2009  
Anonymous togo said...

Isn't South Boston just another SWPL
place these days?

December 22, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, a few of the sources I consulted in my quick and dirty research before this post took care to mention that Ireland was of no great interest to Germany except as I diversion to harass the English. I would imagine that anyone seeking to investigate Ireland's role in the war would find a not entirely edifying story.

December 22, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

John, World War II and the preceding years in Europe interest a number of crime writers. The Bouchercon panel where I heard James R. Benn also included Rebecca Cantrell, whose novel "A Trace of Smoke" is set in 1930s Berlin. John Lawton, Philip Kerr and J. Robert Janes set their novels during World War II, and other authors use World War I as a setting. I wonder when this fascination for crime during wartime started. A number of the authors on the panel made compelling and similar cases for war as a setting for crime stories.

December 22, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Togo, it's been many years since I was in South Boston. I'm not sure how rapidly it gentrified or what its Starbucks Penetration Rate is.

December 22, 2009  
Anonymous Jim Benn said...

If an author can chime in...someone mentioned the German bombing of Belfast as a barely mentioned footnote in history. An even lesser known bombing was the accidental bombing of Dublin, by off-course Luftwaffe pilots. Irony of ironies, they hit Dublin's small Jewish neighborhood.
Jim Benn

December 22, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Authors are always welcome here. A quick and dirty search (which, in modern terms, means Wikipedia) speculates on the cause of the raid (and I apologize for mentioning Wikipedia in a librarian's presence) contains some clues about the tangled Web of modern Irish history:

"Several reasons for the raid have been asserted over time. Among the most discussed are: a navigational error; a deliberate attack in retaliation for Irish assistance to the victims of the Luftwaffe’s bombings of Belfast; a warning to Ireland not to assist Britain during the war or a deflection of radio beams on which the Luftwaffe relied."

December 22, 2009  
Anonymous solo said...

The novelist, Brian Moore, was working as a volunteer air raid warden the night Belfast was blitzed. Later when he was working on the script of Hitchcock's Torn Curtain he told Hitch that the one thing he learned that night was how hard it was to kill a human being. Hitchcock really went to town with that idea. Unfortunately,the resulting scene is about the only memorable one in the movie.

December 22, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, as one reviewer wrote, subpar Hitchcock is still better than most non-Hitchcock.

Did Brian Moore ever write about his experience during the blitz of Belfast?

December 22, 2009  
Anonymous solo said...

I've only read his Judith Hearne. The damage done by the church was a typical theme of his. But I'm not aware of anything on his wartime experiences

December 22, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I asked because I wondered, given the thoughts here about how little discussed Ireland's wartime experience seems to be, whether novelists might have taken the issue up.

December 22, 2009  
Blogger Philip said...

Just a trivial point, but Dublin-born Barry Fitzgerald, whom rather a lot of movies turned into one of America's favourite Catholic priests, was one of those Protestant Irish nationalists, as was his brother, fellow actor Arthur Shields, who fought in the Easter uprising of 1916 and was interned by the British.

On Americans flashing their money around in England during the War, it was said that the trouble with the Yanks was that they were "overpaid, oversexed and over here", but feelings about all three of those aspects must have depended to some extent upon what or whom they were spending that money on, as it were.

December 22, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Philip, was he a descendant of Edward FitzGerald, the citizen lord?

One benefit of starting from a position of near-total ignorance is that one can learn lots quickly, as I did during and after my first trip to Ireland. I made several posts after that visit about the bits of Irish history that don't quite accord with the mythology we get -- that some of the earliest Anglo-French invaders turned out to be defenders of old tradition, and about the conflicts between the new and the old English, for example.

Billy Boyle in the James R. Benn books is a man of no special military ambition and no love for the English. His mother's second cousin has married a general, and young Billy winds up with a job on the general's staff and looks forward to a cushy war in Washington. But the general's name is Dwight David Eisenhower, which throws a monkey wrench into Billy's plans.

Benn has Eisenhower give an impressive lecture on the necessity of winning and maintaining British trust in the face of an overwhelming American military presence: "Pretty soon, there will be more Yank soldiers, planes and ships over here than British. Before that happens we've got to get everything working smoothly between us. If we con't, it could be our greatest weakness. Disunity." That's not the sort of thing one would have seen in a war novel a few years ago, I think.

December 22, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Defenders of Irish tradition, that is. That was the case with John de Courcy, I think.

December 22, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And your point is not so trivial. It is symbolic that a Protestant nationalist would play a Catholic priest for American audiences. It reflects the near-synonymity in America of Irish, Catholic and Republican.

December 22, 2009  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

My mum remembers the blitz on Belfast very clearly. The Heinkels flew right down the middle of Belfast Lough with no AAA on them at all (I dont think they lost a single plane) and this was after "Lord Haw Haw" had promised "easter eggs for Belfast" in his Germany Calling radio address.

December 22, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Here’s a bit about Lord Haw-Haw , with whom readers might be unfamiliar, as I was until about two minutes ago.

December 22, 2009  
Blogger Philip said...

No, Peter, not a descendant of the citizen lord -- his real surname was Shields, like his brother, and his first name William.

A fine book dealing with issues little touched on elsewhere in the literature on the War is David Reynolds' Rich Relations: The American Occupation of Britain, 1942-45, and you might find it a good read, Peter. I certainly did. The section I found particularly interesting was on Black troops in Britain -- quite fascinating, in fact. Reynolds makes the observation that, while some inevitably encounted prejudice in Britain, their warm reception on the whole came as a considerable shock, particularly for those from the South. And not just a shock, but a learning experience that sent them home looking at matters through different eyes. The implication is that the stationing of black troops in Britain may have made no small contribution to the post-war movement for civil and voting rights for African Americans.

Their presence was certainly a potential source of the disunity Eisenhower worried about. The American command wanted the British to segregate the pubs to pacify their white troops. That didn't happen, of course, so it was left to US base commanders to designate local pubs for use of white and black. He recounts one incident in which a group of white Americans walked into a mess and saw a black soldier drinking with a group of whites. One of the Americans walked up to him and slapped him across the face. The black was, in fact, a commonwealth soldier from Sierra Leone, and the Americans promptly got the shit kicked out of them by his white companions, who were British, Australian and New Zealanders.

December 23, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

One hears much about France and its open-handed reception of blacks from America (though for some reason the French have become more circumspect in recent years when it comes to proclaiming their own tolerance). I have heard less about English reception of African Americans.

I will also want to read more John Lawton on England during wartime.

December 23, 2009  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Of course during the Liberation of Paris the Free French forces were largely black regiments from North Africa; in the victory parade however De Gaulle made sure that white soldiers led the FF contingent along the Champs.

And of course the FF and Resistance contribution to the Normandy campaign was minimal.

December 23, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Have you heard the joke that goes:

Q: How many Frenchmen does it take to defend Paris?

A: No one knows. It's never been tried.

I was in Madrid when France won the World Cup in 1998. A small group of Frenchmen ran through the streets, celebrating and singling La Marseillaise, led by a young black man who carried the flag. I seem to recall that the National Front had recently made electoral gains, so this was a moving little spectacle.

December 23, 2009  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Actually my favourite joke of this type:

Why are there trees along the Champs Elysees?

So the German army can march in the shade.

December 23, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've got Irish readers, Americans, Englishmen, Canadians, Danes and Germans. I knew there was something I could do to attract a French readership.

December 23, 2009  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Free white flags

December 24, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I am pleased to report that the only flag I have ever seen a Frenchman wave had three colors, just one of them white.

December 24, 2009  

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