Friday, October 29, 2010

History lessons and reading out of order

We have a nice discussion going about the covers to James R. Benn's Billy Boyle novels, so I thought I'd take a look inside one of the books.

Evil For Evil has Billy, an investigator on Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower's staff during World War II, in Northern Ireland to look into an arms theft. Here Billy chats with Kay Summersby at a hotel bar:
"`I know what you mean. The Black and Tans burned the center of Cork in 1920, so I'm familiar with the heavy hand of the British Empire.'"

"`I know,' I said. `My uncle Dan told me afterward the Black and Tans tied pieces of burnt cork to their revolvers, as a message to anyone who resisted them.' I could recall the stories Uncle Dan had told of the Irish Civil War, when the British recruited veterans of the World War to bolster the ranks of the Royal Irish Constabulary. They were issued a mixture of surplus military and police uniforms. The army uniforms were khaki, the police uniforms darker. The colors gave them their name ... "
Is that an information dump, a chunk of expository prose that slows the story down? I don't know, but it fits Billy's character. He's a young, brash Irish American police detective, still wide-eyed at the new sights he encounters overseas, always comparing new situations to what he had known back home in Boston. He'd naturally be prone to talking about what he knows and what he sees.

I once heard an author of historical mysteries say that if you're going to describe Paris, have an outsider do it. That way the description seems natural for the character, and the author conveys the information painlessly, or nearly so. Benn does it here.
***
A bit later, Eisenhower tells Billy, apropos a British officer, that "I know the two of you didn't get along during that affair with the Norwegians, Billy. But this time he's coming to ask you for a favor, and it ought to be one you won't mind doing."

"That affair with the Norwegians" is the events related in Billy Boyle, the first book in the series. I'd read that book, so for me, the remark was a bit of an action-stopper, a perhaps necessary direct address to the reader. But if I'd read Evil For Evil first, the remark might have seemed a tantalizing bit of mystery — something I'd have gained by reading out of series order.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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31 Comments:

Anonymous adrian said...

Peter

The fourth book is set in Northern Ireland?

Uh oh.

October 29, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I had a feeling that might eventually catch your interest. As a preemptive strike, I should tell you that the novel, at least so far, is anything but sentimentally pro-IRA. Overcoming such romatic prejudices is a good part of what the series is about, as a matter of fact.

To predispose you even more kindly toward Benn, this book appears to portray Billy as a fan of the Boston Braves, and not of the Red Sox. And Benn has paid attention in naming his characters. One is named Adrian, another Carrick -- both Protestants -- while Boyle, Brennan and Mahoney are Catholics.

October 29, 2010  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

I make a point never to judge a book until I actually read it. (Except if its by Dan Brown of course.)

The Braves is a big plus in Benn's favour.

It is interesting what you say about the names. I wonder if a Republican would ever name their son William. William is associated with William of Orange and is thus a hate figure for all Republicans. King Billy is the Loyalist icon par excellence and as you know is painted everywhere in Protestant Ulster. I have met many Loyalists called Billy but not one Republican. It's even more bizarre that his second name is Boyle. The "Billy Boys" is the notorious loyalist anthem and has worse lyrics than even "Croppies Lie Down". I can't imagine any Republican called Boyle naming their child William and then letting the nickname Billy develop, but then again if you grow up in Boston cut off from everyday sectarianism perhaps its possible.

When I heard the name of this series the first thing I thought of was that it was about a Protestant, Catholic-baiting street thug from Belfast.

On arrival in N. Ireland Boyle would very quickly become aware of his somewhat bizarre name.

More about the Billy Boys here

October 30, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

On names, I once read the theory that Lenny Murphy, of the Shankill butchers, may have been driven even further in his fanatical hatred of Catholics by the fact that his name could easily be taken for a Catholic one.

October 30, 2010  
Anonymous adrian said...

Peter

Bobby Sands of course had Protestant and Catholic parents as do a surprising number of radicals on both sides. Yes, I imagine that it's even more necessary to prove one's bona fides if one comes from a "mixed marriage".

Gerry Adams has a classic Scottish planter surname, etc. etc.

October 30, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

So the question for Jim Benn would be less about the name than about the lack of reaction to the name. (Benn will occasionally have characters react to the name Boyle, the reaction depending on whether they are Catholic or Protestant, and he will have Billy reflect on this. But nothing about the first name, as far as I remember.)

October 30, 2010  
Anonymous adrian said...

Peter

To think of a more benign example: it would be like a man from Northern Ireland called Michael Jordan arriving in Chicago in the 1990's. His name would certainly be remarked upon.

And to go back to the particular: as soon as they heard that he called himself "Billy" almost everyone from Northern Ireland would assume that he was a Protestant and act accordingly. The fact that he was called Billy Boyle would have raised eyebrows and possibly fists.

The US Army Rangers were stationed literally across the road from my mum at Sunnylands Camp in Carrickfergus during the War. Indeed that's where the Rangers were reconstituted. The Americans were very popular with the local kids because they brought chocolate and candy. They were also popular with the local merchants because they bought their merchandise. My mum remembers very well the special church service held for the Rangers before they set off for final D Day preparations. What happened to the Rangers at D Day caused much distress back in Carrickfergus.

It also shouldn't be forgotten (and I hope Benn doesnt) that Belfast was devastated by the Luftwaffe and that hatred of the Nazis especially following the Easter 1941 raid was very strong.

October 30, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The Germans are going to figure more prominently in the novel's final hundred or so pages, I think, so I could well have more to report on that score soon.

So the "Billy" would cancel out the "Boyle"?

October 30, 2010  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

No Boyle can be both Protestant or Catholic. Billy Boyle would sound like a very Protestant name, actually an ultra Protestant name probably given him by a Loyalist father who liked the Billy Boys connection. Most people that Boyle encountered would be astounded to learn that he was a Catholic (if they ever did as no one in Northern Ireland would be so unsubtle as to actually ask). If he was in the wrong pub they'd probably just beat him up first and ask questions later.

October 30, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I was going to say that any Boyles I've known here were Catholic, but then, one tends not to meet many Irish Protestants in the parts of America where I've lived.

Benn does make a point of having people just knowing without asking who's who or what's what. No one, as you suggest, has been so unsubtle as to ask whether Boyle was Protestant or Catholic. But then, his U.S. Army uniform seems to loom larger in the locals' eyes than anything else about him. He gets called Yank all the time.

October 30, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, it turns out that it may be Billy's uncle who's the Braves fan. Billy himself has just invoked the Red Sox. Sorry.

October 30, 2010  
Anonymous adrian said...

Peter

Ok, that's not good. Next you'll be telling me that Boyle falls for a flame haired colleen.

October 30, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Boyle's light o'love, from a previous novel, is English. And his mention of the Sox may be a bit of chain-yanking on his part. I'll shall certainly keep you abreast of this important matter.

October 30, 2010  
Anonymous adrian said...

Peter

Have people been talking about the Belfast Blitz at all? A third of Belfast's housing stock was destroyed in air raids and there were refugees everywhere. I imagine Boyle sees devastation everywhere he goes?

October 30, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The book takes place two-and-a-half years after the Belfast Blitz, and little of it is set in the city. But we do get this:

"`More bomb damage?' I said, pointing to the piles of rubble where workers were loading debris onto trucks.

"`Yes. The Lutwaffe gave Belfast the full treatment early on. They went for the dockyards regularly, the railroads, and the city in general. Some neighborhoods were hit quite badly. There are not enough resources at present to rebuild everything, so some of the damaged buildings are taken down and the rubble hauled away, as they are doing now. They still find bodies underneath.'"

October 30, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Odd Man Out was released in 1947, but when was it set? Its Belfast landscape includes a fair bit of devastation and characters living rough.

October 30, 2010  
Anonymous adrian said...

Peter

Of course unlike London, Belfast had done virtually nothing to prepare. No barrage balloons, no AAA, they didn't even put fighters up. Yes the Luftwaffe were ultimately to blame but incompetence and complacency played their part.

I am glad though that Benn mentions the Belfast raids. In Martin Gilbert's one volume history of WW2 and in Andrew Roberts "new history" of WW2 The Storm of War they don't even get a mention.

My mother has a vivid memory of Lord Haw Haw (another disaffected pro German Irishman) promising "Easter eggs for Belfast" on the Germany Calling broadcast. Even with that warning the local authorities did virtually nothing.

October 30, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, you should know that Jim Benn lives at or near the center of a major sectarian divide: Connecticut, where the fault line runs that divides Yankees fans and Red Sox fans.

October 30, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

If Benn gives the Belfast raids more mention than histories of World War II do, then God grant strength to novelists who set stories in that time and place. They have more on their plates than most writers do.

October 30, 2010  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

I doubt I'll actually read this one, but on your rec I'd say that there's a pretty good chance I'll listen to at least book 4 as an audio - which is kind of the point of your blog, I suppose, to get people to read (or listen to) things they otherwise wouldnt.

October 31, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You might try Book One or Five if you hestitate to see what the man has to say about Northern Ireland.

October 31, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

(Up late tinkering with *(*&%1 pictures on the post that follows this one.)

October 31, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ah, now, that is interesting, about the name. I know about the Battle of the Boyne and William of Orange, of course (and that William was in league with the pope at the time), and what William means to both sides of the sectarian divide.

Billy's father and uncles were Republicans, one of them an active IRA supporter. So even in Boston the family would have been exposed to one side of the sectarianism. Perhaps with few or no Irish Protestants around, the name William would have lost some of its potent association and become just one more American moniker. In addition, I don't remember if Benn tells us the ethnicity of Billy's mother. But it's on the mother's side that Billy is related by marriage to Eisenhower, so maybe she was less steeped in sectarianism than the father. So I can imagine explanations for the name.

But I'm nearing the end of Evil For Evil, and there's been no reaction along the lines of what you suggest someone named Billy Boyle would experience upon arrival in Northern Ireland. I'll be eager to see what Benn has to say if he comments on this matter.

In any case, now that we've invoked the Battle of the Boyne, perhaps there's some irony to an author called James creating a hero called William.

October 31, 2010  
Anonymous James R. Benn said...

I've no explanation for the name other than the phrase "Billy Boyle from Boston" popped into my head as I was beginning to develop the idea for the series. He arrived fairly well formed, and the alliteration appealed to me. At that time (1999 or so) I had no notion of exploring his Irish roots.

Having said that, I am certain that his mother, related to the Doud family (Mamie's family) insisted on naming him William after an esteemed Dowd relation.

As for the Braves, I enjoy baseball history and that was a fun bit to put in. Billy has mentioned the Sox a couple of times, mainly in reaction to his boss, Major Harding, who is a Yankees fan (me too). I enjoy having an alter ego to explore the other side of the baseball divide here!

Jim

October 31, 2010  
Anonymous James R. Benn said...

One historical note on the Belfast Blitz: The Luftwaffe once accidently bombed Dublin - it may have been just one bomber, can't recall exactly. The ironic thing was that they hit to very tiny Jewish neighborhood of Dublin. de Valera kept it quiet so as not to antagonize the Germans - or perhaps to not demonstrate how defenseless the Republic was to attack.

October 31, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Jim, for those joining this discussion in progress, since you mention that you had no notion of exploring Billy Boyle's Irish roots at first, I should add that Evil For Evil is the fourth book in the series and that none of the previous three is set in Ireland.

I am pleased that I turn out to have been right about the source of Billy's name, and I imagine the choice chilled relations between Billy's Uncle Dan and the mother's side for a while -- though Dowds themselves would have had ancient Irish roots, albeit probably thoroughly Anglicized by now.

I also had not realized that Warren Spahn had a cup of coffee (one of my favorite baseball expressions) before beginning his career with the Braves in earnest.

Adrian, who sits across the table from you in this debate, is a huge Yankees fan, probably the most enthusiastic Yankees supporter ever to come out of Carrickfergus.

October 31, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'd imagine that widespread discussion of a German bombing of Dublin might also have increased pressure against de Valera to drop neutrality. One wonders if things might have been different had Robert Briscoe been Lord Mayor of Dublin then instead of a decade and a half later.

October 31, 2010  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

James,

Yes, the Dublin raid was a bit of a cock up wasnt it? And of course Dublin had no black out.

De Valera has always been a bit of a villain in my book over this issue. (Aside from probably assassinating Michael Collins.) Stating that Ireland should be neutral in a fight between England and Nazi Germany showed a lack of moral courage. And then delivering a note of condolence to the German embassy on hearing of Hitler's death...

October 31, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Was De Valera working on the supposition that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend"?

Definitely very wrong to issue condolences on Hitler's death. That's rather a bummer to hear about, not that I'm a great fan of De Valera's.

November 11, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, there must be some good critical assessments of de Valera floating around. I developed a certain respect for Michael Collins when I read a bit of Irish history around the time of my visits. But one has to weigh his political realism against his having ordered killings. So what does one say for a man who likely had Collins killed?

The tidbit to which I have seen several references recently, maybe once in Jim Benn's book, is that Churchill offered de Valera a united Ireland in return for Ireland joining the Allies. What's the story behind that?

November 11, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, I think reading good historical biographies of Collins and de Valera is in order.

November 11, 2010  

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