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Tom Chaney: When the Guns Are Turned

Of Writers And Their Books: When the Guns Are Turned. Tom reviews the Advocate by Bill Mesce, Jr., a novel recounting an investigation into why a pilot shoots down a fellow pilot returning from a bombing raid on the Germans in 1943. This column first appeared 23 August 2009.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: Someone's in the Kitchen with Julia

By Tom Chaney

When the Guns Are Turned

On an August day in 1943, shepherd Gresham arises early, makes his tea and biscuit, sharing with his dog, then goes out into the English morning above the coast to do his chores with his hens and sheep. Overnight a fox had got into the hen house. Gresham makes necessary repairs, and with the dog takes the sheep to pasture away from the high cliffs that border the English Channel.

The dog barks. The shepherd turns to see smoke from his cottage chimney. His wife has arisen. As he watches, she comes out the door and waves to him, pointing to the east.

The merest speck registers the approach of an airplane. Gresham heads for the cottage. The couple are spotters, and the presence of airplane charts and a radio mars the appropriate decor of the spotless sitting room.

Two more planes emerge from the mist. He identifies them as American P-47 fighters. The first plane is trailing smoke. His radio report is accepted. The Greshams step out of the cottage to follow the planes.

Suddenly the front plane is attacked by one of the trailing fighters causing it to crash into the verge of the sea. As the Greshams stand horrified the guns of the attacking P-47 are turned on them and their cottage. They escape, but the cottage and the radio are destroyed.

Gresham descends to the strand and recovers the body of the pilot of the first plane.

Thus begins Bill Mesce, Jr.'s first novel Advocate [Bantam 2000] with Steven G. Szilagyi.

The Germans have been defeated in Russia. The war in the Pacific is being won. Americans are fighting desperate battles with the Luftwaffe in the skies over Germany.

Why would one American P-47 Thunderbolt pilot deliberately shoot down a fellow pilot on the return from a mission?

The Judge Advocate General's office chooses a homesick attorney, Harry Voss, to find out.

Accounts of eyewitnesses confirm what the ballistics say. Harry Markham, a much decorated pilot has shot down Dennis O'Connell, his fellow pilot. Markham confirms this in a sworn statement.

The novel moves then from being a 'Whodunit' to a 'Whyhedunit.'

As Voss probes into the event he realizes that the army does not want the truth to come out. He becomes aware that proceeding can ruin his career and adversely affect his reputation.

He proceeds.

Some critics both here and in England have criticized what is called the awkwardness of the narrator. For most of the novel the narrator is nameless. Gradually it emerges that he is a Scottish reporter Eddie Owen.

Owen's role enables a degree of omniscient insight as the story unfolds. However, his source is Harry Voss. Owen cannot know all. He is not hiding the secret from us.

I am not about to get into the 'whyhedunit' issue except to say that this story takes place near the time of Dresden. It is too good a story for me to ruin for the reader with too much detail.

That assumes that the reader is as backward as I in not stumbling across the work of Mesce any sooner.

The Advocate became an off-Broadway play. Mesce has now written some other World War II stories. I'm on the lookout for them.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2014-08-24 03:24:06
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