Review of A Mortal Terror by James R. Benn
Overview from www.bn.com: In his sixth investigation, Lieutenant Billy Boyle finds himself in pursuit of a serial killer with a particularly frightening agenda.
1943: Billy Boyle is sent to Caserta, Italy, to investigate the murders of two American officers stationed there. The MOs are completely different, and it seems like the officers had no connection to each other, but one frightening fact links the murders: each body was discovered with a single playing card: the Lieutenant, the ten of hearts; the Captain, the jack of hearts. The message seems to be clear—if the murderer isn’t apprehended, the higher ranks will be next. As the invasion at Anzio begins, Billy needs to keep a cool head amidst fear and terror as the killer calculates his next moves.
I discovered this book by searching through my county library’s catalogues for fiction stories that take place during World War II and I discovered a gem. A Mortal Terror is not only a tale of the Second World War but it is also a murder mystery so I loved it both as a Mystery and as Historical Fiction.
Billy Boyle is a detective working for Eisenhower during the war. He is a member of the Armed Forces (currently ranking as a lieutenant) but Ike apparently calls on him to solve crime as well. The army believes him to be an experienced investigator due to the time he spent on the Boston PD though he actually spent little time there as a detective. He is not letting that cat out of the bag however as his current job allows him a few perks now and then from “Uncle Ike” that he’d rather not do without.
He might be up a creek without a paddle however when he is ordered to investigate the murder of two officers stationed in Italy. Though they both seemed well-liked by the men under them someone apparently thinks that the Germans have been remiss in their duties to exterminate these two Americans. Billy thinks that someone might be an American G.I. who has a grudge against officers.
“The Red Heart Killer” seems to be going up the ranks leaving a playing card as his calling card with each corpse that he takes out because he doesn’t stop at two. He means to go all the way up to a general and that’s got the brass terrified.
Billy must find out who he is and stop him before he gets that high while protecting his little brother from the same killer who maybe using Billy’s brother Danny against him. The question is, if he has to choose between the general and Danny, who will he pick?
In case you’re still wondering, I really liked this story. It kept me guessing all the way to the end and with the war as a backdrop there was certainly no shortage of action. It was interesting how even in the midst of war; our killer has time to murder on the battlefield while fighting off the German invaders. It seems a mere war isn’t stimulating enough for this “psychopath.”
The only negatives I could site were that in some parts of the story the foul language was a bit strong but not as bad as what I have seen in other books. Of course there is violence: both from the war as well as the murders but it was not as graphic as it could have been.
I liked it about as much as I liked the last Historical Mystery and I hope to read more of both series. I thought it was also interesting to see how the term “shell shock” from World War I evolved into the term “combat fatigue” in this war. Both are now called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder I think. It makes me wonder what they called it during Vietnam.
Finally I will close with a quote from the book that I liked a lot. This is at the close of a chapter where Danny is nearly killed when the Germans decide to launch a surprise attack. (By the way, this author is especially good at ending the chapters of the book in interesting ways.) To understand it I must first tell you that the character Charlie Colorado is a Native American whose tribe believes in a god named Usen and that is who Billy is referring to here.
“’Danny?’ I spoke his name but looked to Kaz.
‘He’s not hurt, Billy. It is Malcomb, the other ASTP boy. He ran.’ Kaz pointed to a lifeless body twenty yards out, clothing, skin, blood, and bone shredded by the shrapnel-laced blast.
‘I tried to stop him,’ Danny said. ‘I tried.’
‘You would have been killed too,’ I said. ‘He panicked. You were smart to stay put.’
‘I didn’t. Charlie grabbed me and held me down,’ Danny said, his voice shaky as he glanced toward Charlie Colorado, sitting on the edge of the trench. A big guy, bronzed skinned, and quiet.
‘Usen,’ I said.
‘I am not the Giver of Life,’ Charlie said. I begged to differ.” P.193-194
Contains: some foul language, violence, references to prostitution