Where we really do judge a book by its cover
October 12, 2006
Billy Boyle: A World War II Mystery by James R. Benn, 2006, Soho Press, New York. 304 pages, $23.
Man, if there's anything I can't get enough of, it's World War II. I
love World War II movies, World War II television shows, World War II
collectible trading cards—anything and everything World War II is fine
by me. I'd even sleep on World War II sheets if I could find them and
they came in my thread count (1,200, if any of you sheet manufacturers
That being said, I just couldn't get excited about placing James R.
Benn's new novel Billy Boyle: A World War II Mystery on my bookshelf,
even though it clearly has "World War II" clearly printed on the spine,
front cover and back cover. One reason might be the fact that I think
Billy Boyle is the dumbest name ever uttered by a member of the human
race, but it's more likely that the front cover imagery is just plain
The cover's one of those soft painted jobs that were so popular
before the war, showing the back of a guy in uniform—presumably Billy
Boyle himself, though to be absolutely certain would require actually
reading the book, which is well beyond the scope of this column—looking
over your classic World War II scene: a squadron of American bombers
lit up by searchlights at night as they fly over smoke-belching
factories and a burning convertible, which seems to be putting out way
more smoke than the factories (that's leaded gasoline for you, I
The guy, who takes up most of the image, is just standing there,
looking around. He's not in the middle of any of the usual action
scenes we normally associate with World War II: shooting a Nazi with a
submachine gun, repelling a Japanese Banzai charge with his grizzled
buddies or even seducing some poor dogface's wife while that guy's off
shooting a Nazi with a submachine gun or repelling a Japanese Banzai
charge with his grizzled buddies.
Did the guy on the cover order the bombers on their mission? Is he
on his way to pump up production at the factories? Is he trying to
remember if his auto insurance covers worldwide conflagration? All I
know is that these questions better not make up the great "mystery"
mentioned in the title.
Yet the praise just crackles off the back cover, in a classy,
easy-to-read type: "Billy Boyle. Not only of the Greatest Generation,
U.S. Army, assigned to find a spy, but he's an ex-cop. Ex-Boston cop.
With a tale as tight as a drum. Doesn't get any better than this."
You know who said that? Mary-Ann Tirone Smith, the author of Girls
of Tender Age: A Memoir. If there's anyone who knows what she's talking
about when she throws around phrases like "tight as a drum," it's
Mary-Ann Tirone Smith.
Anyway, Billy Boyle could have been a great World War II tome to
display proudly on your shelf, somewhere between your copies of Stephen
Ambrose's D-Day and General Patton's memoirs. As it is, it's strictly
bottom-shelf material, useful to fill that space between your Hogan's
Heroes DVDs and Donald Duck comic The Victory Garden and not much else.
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