Monday, September 3, 2012

Guest Author James R. Benn

It's always a delight, here on Murder is Everywhere, to receive guest author Jim Benn. Jim, now writing full-time after thirty-plus years in the library and technology businesses, is the author of the Billy Boyle series, published by by Soho Press.

DEATH'S DOOR is his latest, and a cracker-jack book it is too.
In it, Benn continues Billy's adventures as a World War Two grunt, dropping him down, this time, in Rome in 1944. The eighth opus, tentatively titled ANGRY SMITH, is the next one up.
But you going to have to wait until 2013 to read that one.

Jim is also the author of two excellent standalones, ON DESPERATE GROUND and SOUVENIR, available exclusively in ebook form.

He lives in Hadlyme, Connecticut, with his wife Deborah Mandel.

Leighton - Monday

In 1976 I was working as a public library director and enthralled with my new duties as acquisitions librarian, as well as chief custodian and handyman. Even though the town was small and the pay even smaller, it was heaven for a liberal studies major. I got to buy books, for crying out loud!
I recall reading a review about a book of short stories by Alan Coren, an editor at Punch magazine. He had determined that the most popular books of the day were about golf, cats, and Nazis. He also thought that authors should stop whining about lack of support from their publishers and help promote their books in new and creative ways. To that end, he titled his rather thin (160 pages) book Golfing For Cats. The bold red cover had nothing but a huge swastika on it.

I loved the concept and bought two copies for the library. Apparently few others shared my enthusiasm. Perhaps the fact that there was no golf, not a single cat or even a mention of Adolf created confusion for the book-buying public. Still, I always remembered this cheeky bit of attempted author marketing fondly, hoping one day I could also write a book about cat-loving Nazi golfers.

This year, with the upcoming publication of the seventh Billy Boyle novel (Death’s Door -- pictured above) I finally had my chance to score one out of three of Coren’s sure-fire cover strategies. This book is set within Nazi-occupied Rome, where Billy is sent disguised as a priest, to investigate the murder of an American monsignor within neutral Vatican territory. There is a scene set in Piazza Navona, near Bernini’s famous sculpture Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi or Fountain of the Four Rivers. Billy, in his priestly garb, is being observed by a German officer. I was entranced by the figure in the sculpture representing the Nile River, with a cloth pulled over his eyes symbolizing the unknown source of the river. It seemed the perfect image for a mystery, the journey toward the unknown.

The Nazis, of course, were fond of their swastika symbol, and it is an easy matter to find images of the red banners hung from buildings throughout occupied Europe. So the Piazza Navona scene with a red banner was proposed to the artist, who put together a quick sketch.
I liked it immediately. My small homage to Alan Coren actually worked as a cover image. The final (or so I thought) color image was striking.

Everyone was happy.

Except for the sales representatives, who said the swastika had to go. Apparently German and Austrian laws make the public showing of the Hakenkreuz (swastika) and other Nazi symbols illegal. The same is true of Poland, Lithuania, Hungary and Brazil, and the European Union as a whole has drafted similar laws, none of which have yet passed. Alan Coren never had to worry about online images showing up on Amazon in 1976. So the advance reading copies went to print with an empty red banner, which was fine, but we needed to put some kind of image there. Who would hang a plain red banner in Piazza Navona?

I proposed several ideas, including the fasces symbol of the Italian Fascist Party (the Italians don’t seem to care one way or the other about this sort of imagery), the ancient Roman symbol of imperial authority. Nope. Looked too much like a pencil. Then I found images of the symbol of the Italian Fascist Army, an eagle clutching the fasces in his claws. Not bad, I thought, and sent that off.

With the publication date not too far off, this was the artwork designed to fill in the banner:

This attempt looked more like the eagle from the Polish national coat of arms. Oops. Since Poland had not conquered Rome, I resent the image for the Italian Army Eagle.

Almost there. Except this eagle looked a little bit like a chicken, maybe a roaster with yummy drumsticks.

With a  bit of artistic tweeking, the roaster became an actual Fascist emblem, and the banner came alive.

The odd thing is that one of the characters in the book is Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty, a real-life Irish priest who saved the lives of thousands by hiding escaped POWs, Jews and Italian anti-fascists within the Vatican and throughout Rome. He’s worth a Google search. Before the war, he had engaged in his hobby whenever he could. Can you guess what it was?

And this last photo is one of the gentleman himself.


  1. Jim, what a great subject and a wonderful cover, definitely worth all the trouble it took to get it right. I look forward to reading the book in Rome, where I will be in a few months. I'll take it to Piazza Navona and read it while having a tartuffo at Tre Scalini. What could be more delicious than a good book and chocolate?

  2. Laws are sometimes unfortunate. The first version with the swastika is so much more striking. C'est la vie.

  3. Cats & James R. kids us all. Well done!

  4. Very interesting, and the cover really draws in the reader. I am looking forward to the book.

  5. I'm so looking forward to reading this Jim - ordered my copy!

  6. Thanks, Cara. Enjoyed your post as well. History has a long reach, doesn't it?

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