'And don't miss:
LUMEN by Ben Pastor. When an abbess thought to have supernatural powers is murdered in Nazi-occupied Cracow, the Wehrmacht captain's investigation is complicated by his compatriots' cruelty and the Catholic Church's secrecy. An interesting, original and melancholy tale.' - Literary Review
'When it comes to crime novels with an international flair, I've found some really interesting titles from Bitter Lemon Press. Recently I received a copy of Lumen by Ben Pastor for review. I had a scornful reaction to the words on the cover: A case for WEHRMACHT CAPTAIN MARTIN BORA. Pleeze…..Part of my initial distrust in the novel arose from my skepticism surrounding the meteor shower of Scandinavian crime titles currently hitting North America. Thanks to the success of the series: The Girl Who Shoved the Hornet's Nest up Someone's Bottom, publishers are scrambling for the next big series detective hit. Picking over some of the titles, I wonder if they're scraping the bottom of the barrel. Reminds me of the Harry Potter phenomenon. Anyway, who in the hell would write a detective series about a friggin' Nazi officer? Who in their right minds would read it? Well sign me up, baby. Lumen is fresh, original and a compulsive read.
So what's it about?
It's October 1939, just days after the Nazi army invasion of Poland. Army Intelligence Officer, Captain Martin Bora is stationed in Cracow. It's been a successful invasion, and now the German army and the SS are ferreting out pockets of resistance, rounding up jews and feeling smug about the ease of conquest so far:
"Bora walked back to the army car trying to remind himself that this was war also, killing the livestock of those who harboured Polish army stragglers and deserters. A far cry from the excitement of winning towns house by house, door by door. It seemed to him that the glorious days were already past, and now the business of war-another month at most, no doubt-would go downhill from the exhilaration of the first three weeks. He even wondered what he'd do with himself for the remainder of his life. "
This is an interesting passage as it illustrates Bora's naiveté about the Nazi mission, and it also places the reader in the spot of knowing more than Bora about what lies ahead. Bora is shortly assigned to investigate the murder of a popular abbess, Mother Kazimierza. She was known for prophecies and also for "the phenomenon of the stigmata. " Although most of her utterances seemed apolitical, there are rumours that she was involved with the Resistance. This makes her a political issue, and since the bullet which killed her was Polish, the Germans are eager to place themselves well away from any blame. An American priest, Father Malecki is in Cracow by order of the pope to investigate the powers of the abbess, and Malecki becomes Bora's contact in the convent.
Bora is an interesting character, and I'm impressed with how author Ben Pastor fashioned him. She certainly didn't go overboard and make him too sympathetic, and logically that makes sense. Make him too sympathetic and he becomes a victim who'd be gobbled up by the Nazis. Instead, he's idealistic, pragmatic, and strait-laced. So for example, driven by duty, he understands orders such as clearing the library of so-called anti-German texts and slaughtering the livestock to punish Polish farmers who've hidden deserters. To him that makes sense, but he doesn't understand taking the farmer's women, raping and then murdering them.
It's as if Bora hasn't "got it " yet. As he investigates the murder of the abbess, he uncovers an alarming number of atrocities (the systematic murder of Polish officers, for example-a foreshadowing of Katyn), he reports to his superiors honestly thinking that those responsible will be punished. Instead he finds himself on the slippery moral slope. He can continue to complain and take the consequences or shut up and get on with his job. These a definite hierarchy afoot which is determined by rank, of course, but there appears to be another silent system with those who weaken replaced with harder characters.
Pastor, wisely I think, does not make Bora squeamish about grabbing the confiscated property of Jews. Bora is assigned a splendid Cracow apartment which he must share with the libidinous Major Retz. The apartment comes complete with a piano and an impressive library, but neither man cares where the occupant is. Booty is a given. At one point Bora runs into his old piano teacher, a Jew named Weiss, who's now forced nighttime labour and about to be "relocated. " We can imagine where:
"The truth was that Bora didn't want to be kind to Weiss, didn't want to feel sorry for him. Right then he didn't want to feel anything. Anger and shame made him egotistical. Two blocks away there was a dead nun whose murder he was expected to solve, and this little man, his old piano teacher, asked for more light. What about the light he needed? "
"I can't stay, " he said, even though he could have stayed because he had nothing to do for the next two hours. But he couldn't, he couldn't. He didn't want to stay.
At another point, Bora and Retz make a chilling foray into the Cracow ghetto with Retz operating with "the manner of a carefree tourist guide. "
Bora is a character I wanted to read more about-a Prussian aristocrat who's married to some horribly selfish Nazi-Amazon-Equestrian-Bitch whose father is big in the party. Bora's stepfather, a general, isn't impressed by the marriage as he realises that it signals an alliance with the new Germany. Bora's superiors sense his conscience is troubled by some of the things he sees and as readers it's obvious that there's trouble ahead for Bora-even if he does tow the line. He's already had to make a choice between his conscience and orders, and while he may obey, there's no sadist gusto, and his superiors know this:
"If you start feeling sorry so early on, Bora, you're screwed. What should you care? We have our orders and the SD have theirs. It was only an accident that you didn't happen to have similar orders. And these Polack farmers-they aren't even people, they're not even worth reproducing. I can see you're perturbed, but believe me, don't start caring. " Bora said something, and Schenck interrupted. "We're all in it. If it's guilt, we're all guilty. This is the way it is. "
"I cannot accept this is the way it is, Colonel. We also have laws. "
"So early on, and you're already talking about laws? You yourself have come tearing down through Polish villages like a cyclone in your first days here. What laws? Leave things very well alone. First you report to me about the hanged Ukrainians, and now it's Polack farmers. Harden your heart, as the advice was given to us at the beginning of this campaign. It'll do you good in life. You're just a young captain with scruples, not a relevant or even useful position at all. "
One of those most significant relationships in the novel takes place between Father Malecki and Bora, and perhaps this is because the two men have some common issues. Just as Bora isn't free to punish men for rape and murder, Malecki is forced to obey orders from the Vatican. Neither man is free to take independent action, and both men wrestle with their conscience at several points. I particularly enjoyed the way the author showed how morality is so easily eroded in time of war, and the extraordinary courage required by those who step up and refuse to carry out orders that cross the line.
Apparently there's a sequel on the way, and I'll be reading it.' - His Futile Preoccupations
'Set in Poland, in the weeks after the German invasion in 1939, Lumen is an intelligent, densely-woven hybrid of thriller, detective story and novel about Catholicism as it falls to the occupying Germans to investigate the shooting of the mystical Mother Superior of a Cracow nunnery.
Wehrmacht Captain Martin Bora (actually, the rather aristocratic Freiherr von Bora) is assigned the case, aided and abetted by a visiting American priest on a mission to assess the dead Mother Superior for beatification, and then things get really complicated when Bora's room-mate, the randy Major Retz, is also found dead in suspicious circumstances. As the reluctant detective nibbles away at the murder puzzle(s), he finds himself at risk from Nazi hardliners when he begins to doubt the cause he is fighting for as he realises the horror of the Nazi master plan for conquered Poland.
I found this thriller element and Bora's growing sense of disgust and fear far more interesting than the detective story (although that is logically, if ironically, thought out) and the book is crammed with fascinating characters such as Bora's wonderful father-in-law, who makes a far-too-brief appearance, his wife (who doesn't actually appear at all, but that's the point) and a race-obsessed commanding officer who just won't stop giving sex therapy advice.
There are also scenes which stick in the memory for a long time - the hiding of the body of the Mother Superior (a brilliant answer to the riddle: where do you hide a dead nun?); the horribly casual way in which the Germans size up the Cracow ghetto and wonder if it is going to big enough for their plans; the meeting between German and Russian officers, at this time supposed 'allies' carving up Poland; and Bora's witnessing of the random execution of Polish peasants and Jewish farmers which presage the coming Holocaust.
This is an astonishingly well-written, richly-textured thriller, though the most astonishing thing about it is that it has taken almost eleven years to be published in this country.'
'Pastor's plot is well crafted, her prose sharp...a disturbing mix of detection and reflection.' - Publishers Weekly
'Cracow, Poland, October 1939: The Germans have recently occupied Poland and are seeking to establish their authority. Captain Martin Bora of the Wehrmacht (the German army) has just arrived in the city from the battlefield to take up a posting to Intelligence. His boss asks Bora to drive him to a convent every day to see the renowned Abbess, rumoured to have mystic and healing powers. A few days later, though, she is found shot dead in the grounds of her convent. Bora is asked to investigate and report back. He proceeds to investigate who shot her and why, but as his investigation continues, there are more questions for Bora and the reader. Where does this case fit in with the priorities of the occupying forces? This is an unusual historical mystery. We learn little of the character of the abbess or the other nuns - what we learn is reported at quite a distant remove. The most significant religious character in the novel is a Polish-American priest from Chicago, Father John Malecki. Bora and he develop an uneasy friendship. In fact, the mystery plot turns out to be quite slight. The novel is much more interesting in its portrait of a time and place and one man's reactions to it. Captain Martin Bora is an intriguing character. Pastor's approach to creating a sympathetic hero who is a German soldier is to show Bora's increasing distance from the behaviour and views of his fellow officers, and his growing doubts about Nazi ideology and practice. It becomes very clear in the course of the story that while Bora wants to find out the truth about what happened, his bosses may not share that aim. I enjoyed the witty portrait of Colonel Schenk, who talks at great length to Bora about the importance of fathering racially pure Aryan children, and who is committed to the cause.
Lumen is billed as first in a series, to my surprise as it doesn't really read as a series novel, and a German military investigator in 1939/40 with doubts about the cause doesn't seem set for a long career. From my online research, however Pastor has written a second novel about Bora, this time set in Italy later in the war. It's not available to buy or borrow at the moment but I hope Bitter Lemon are able to bring it back into print and to a wider audience, too.'
- Book Bag
'In "Lumen " by Ben Pastor Martin Bora is a captain in the Wehrmacht intelligence immediately following the 1939 invasion of Poland. In this first episode of a promising and well-written new series he investigates the murder of an abbess whose rumoured mystical powers have gained her a popular following not appreciated by the church hierarchy nor the occupying power. The danger in any fiction of this sort is the creation of a mythical "good German." It's a figure beloved of those determined to eliminate from history the true good Germans, the communists, socialists, trade unionists and others who resisted Hitler in his homeland from the first day to the last. By and large, Pastor avoids the trap. Bora is young and ambitious, posh and rather arrogant. His aristocratic stepfather expresses open contempt for the nazis, but mainly because they are so revoltingly middle-class. It's only through chance encounters that Bora begins to catch glimpses of the new Germany's true nature and gradually, reluctantly, he becomes aware of a growing disconnection between his image of himself as a good soldier and the shameful reality of his role.' - Morning Star
'A mystery, it rivets the reader until the end and beyond, with its twist of historical realities. A historical piece, it faithfully reproduces the grim canvas of war. A character study, it captures the thoughts and actions of real people, not stereotypes.' - The Fredericksburg Free Lance Star
'This is a fast paced, page turning historical thriller from an award winning author of the genre. Set in 1939 Krakow the story follows Wehrmacht Captain Bora investigating the murder of revered nun Mother Kazimierza, who has been under inquiry by the Pope's envoy for her power to foretell the future. As the investigation progresses, the tensions between the occupying forces and the Church build against a brilliantly described background where Bora investigates the ravages against Polish farmers by advancing German troops , the setting up of the Jewish Ghetto, partisan activity, and the daily life of an occupied city. Cracking.' - Journal of the Law Society of Scotland
'Lumen by Ben Pastor is set in Cracow, Poland in October 1939, a city and a country recently invaded by the Nazis, and centres on the investigation of the killing of "holy abbess " Mother Kazimierza, a revered nun with supposedly psychic powers. The investigation is conducted, intriguingly, by an ill-matched pair of detectives: Wehrmacht Captain Martin Bora and an American Catholic priest, Father John Malecki, who has been sent by the Pope to evaluate the claims of the abbess' mystic powers. Fascinating.' - Shots Magazine
'This intelligent crime novel begins a new series following the experiences of Martin Bora, a captain in the Wehrmacht. The novel begins in October 1939; the Germans have taken over Poland, and Bora is sent to Cracow to investigate the murder of a nun, the abbess Mother Kazimierza, who has been shot dead in her convent garden. Considered a saint by many, she has made many prophecies and the title lumen (light) is connected with these foretellings which may have inspired the Germans to get rid of her, but on the other hand, they can do such a deed far more openly if they wish. The whole idea of light and darkness forms an important theme within the novel. The atmosphere, ideas and inclusion of the Catholic faith remind the reader of Graham Greene, and certainly it is in many ways not an easy read. The reader is left with a lot to do working out the attitudes and interior motives and feelings of the characters. This is very much a show rather than tell novel. Politics and ethics are mixed together as they are within the soul of Bora, who is conflicted between his duty as a captain and potential father of the German race and his conscience as a human being and lapsed Catholic. The foreknowledge by the reader of the horrific events of the Holocaust to come add real poignancy and cast a black shadow over the events described, some of which are disturbing enough already. It is far from being a cheerful book, but it is thought provoking and powerful. I am very grateful I didn't have to live through such a terrible conflict of soul and body.' - Historical Novels Review
'In 1938 Father Malecki, a Polish American priest from Chicago investigates the alleged powers of Mother Kazimierza, the abbess of a convent in Nazi occupied Cracow, Poland. People believe in her ability to foresee the future. However, before Father Malecki can make a determination, someone shoots and kills Mother Kazimierza.
Wehrmacht Captain Martin Bora is assigned to investigate the homicide in which his superior Nazi fanatic fanatical Colonel Schenk demands one finding, a Jew killed the holy woman. At the same time the Archbishop and the American consul demand Father Malecki stay out of the inquiry; in fact they prefer he return to Chicago.
Although the murder mystery that at least in the first case is relatively easy to solve, Lumen is also a great historical that uses the killing of a nun to provide a stunning period piece focused on the horrors humanity does in the name of some ism. The profound story line focuses on the Nazi-Communist takeover of Poland while the Church remained mute to Father Malecki's shock. Seemingly minor incidents like how a Jewish teacher addresses his former student now a German Officer and the visiting official told to back off or else make for a discerning read. These little tidbits of horror include the trip Bora makes to the Communist allies taking Poland apart from the east while the Germans do likewise from the west; with each side trumping the other in brutality. Readers will relish the lives of Bora and Malecki circa 1938 as the value systems the soldier grew up with has been obliterated by his country and their ally; and that of the priest devastated by the Vatican's silence in this dark early WWII era thriller.'
' Lumen was first released in Italy back in 1999, and Ben Pastor is the nom de plume of the university academic better known to her students as Maria Verbena Volpi. This is the first novel in her Martin Bora series, which is set during World War II and features a most unusual pairing - the German captain Bora and an American Roman Catholic priest. The books have recently been picked up by British publisher Bitter Lemon Press which released the second book, Liar Moon, earlier this month.
It's Cracow in 1939 and the Nazis are already beginning to establish themselves in Poland and making it abundantly clear that anyone who stands in their way will be shown no mercy. Graphic displays of violence are commonplace and when we're first introduced to the protagonist Martin Bora, it's in the aftermath of an attack on vehicles carrying Nazi personnel. The Polish army is on the march and there are plenty of casualties on either side, but the cost to civilians is also highlighted.
Mother Kazimierza is Abbess of the Our Lady of Sorrows convent and is highly respected by Poles and German alike. She bears the stigmata and is regarded as something of a mystic due to her ability to predict events through visions. Hailed as a potential saint, the Vatican have sent Father John Malecki to investigate her, but when she is murdered in the convent's cloister garden, Bora must look into the killing and finds that he must join forces with the American priest if he is going to discover the truth. He has only two questions: who would want to kill a nun, and why? To complicate matters, he finds himself investigating a second death when his roommate unexpectedly commits suicide. The cases may or may not be linked but Bora is convinced that in both deaths, something doesn't quite add up.
Having a German officer as your main protagonist may seem a strange choice. I have to admit I had mixed feelings towards Bora because of what he represents but to counter that he isn't a typical Nazi. There are hints throughout about his background - he comes from a good family, is well educated, recently married and although not necessarily a good Catholic, he does have a moral code. He's a man bound by duty and loyalty but troubled by the paths he has chosen, and fully aware that he risks making some very dangerous enemies.
This isn't the easiest book to read, predominantly because of the subject matter Pastor chooses as one of her central themes. The harsh realities of Nazi occupation and anti-Semitism are laid bare and her writing will evoke strong feelings with many readers. However, it does very much feel as though the main purpose of the book is to allow the reader to get to know what kind of men Bora and Malecki are, especially as this is the first time their paths will cross in this intelligently written series.'
'The setting is October 1938, Cracow, Nazi-occupied-Poland. Father Malecki, a Polish American priest from Chicago has been investigating the powers of Mother Kazimierza, abbess of a convent in Cracow. She has a devoted following, brought about by her alleged ability to see into the future. When she is shot dead in her convent garden, Wehrmacht Captain Martin Bora is charged with the investigation. Bora's task is made impossibly difficult by the brutality of the occupation, and the gradual realisation that great crimes are being perpetrated. He comes across his old Jewish piano teacher carrying basalt blocks in the freezing cold:
"Herr Weiss. "
Not so much that a German officer had addressed him, but that he'd used a form of respect intimidated the old man, whose first reaction was to step back and aside with head low, as required.
"Herr Weiss, it's Martin Bora. "
Both Martin Bora and Father Malecki are under massive pressure from their superiors. Father Malecki has to face the obstruction of the Archbishop and the American consul, as he struggles to come to terms with the tragedy. Martin Bora has to deal with his fanatical superior Colonel Schenk. Schenck's bizarre ramblings that may sound strange today were in fact firmly embedded as part of the Nazi belief system:
"In two weeks I had her pregnant, and the third week I married her. Unfortunately it turned out to be a daughter, but she did better ten months later. " He tapped the floor with his foot, surveying the sparse population of the officers' club. "I hope you have a high sperm count. A high sperm count is essential in these matters."
Bora's life is made even more stressed by his sharing a billet with the thoroughly unpleasant Major Retz, who sends Bora out to spend his nights in the cold as he uses the apartment to 'entertain' the actress Ewa Kowalska, or her daughter Helenka, or any other young woman he can find.
Martin Bora accompanies Colonel Schenck on a dispiriting visit to their allies in the dismemberment of Poland, the Russians. He also sees and reports on actions committed by the SD (security police) in the forests and the countryside that will put both his career and his life at risk.
While the solution to Mother Kazimierza's murder might not be too difficult to work out, there are some big surprises as well as another mysterious death that along with the vibrant sub-plots make this book a tense read. That tension is maintained by dialogue that seems authentic to the period and situation.
LUMEN is an example of how the crime fiction novel can be used to address historical, religious, and moral questions, reaching a wider readership than possible than with non-fiction works. The author's use of changing perspectives has created an excitingly authentic atmosphere, which combined with the undoubted historical accuracy makes this novel a memorable read.
"Choose, Martin. Right now, right now. Because your life you may lose regardless, but your immortal soul you'll lose absolutely if you make the wrong choice. "
Ben (Maria Verbena) Pastor was born in Italy, but she has lived for thirty years in the United States working as a university professor in Vermont. She writes in English.'