"Although Bernie Gunther’s adventures have come to an end, Nazi-era Berlin remains a rich source of mysteries to be solved. Distinguished by their literary ambition and impeccably realised sense of place, Ben Pastor’s stories about the aristocratic half-Scottish counter-intelligence officer Martin Bora deserve to be to be better known than they are.
"The Martin Von Bora series by Italian-American author Pastor reaches its 7th volume (although it’s almost double that in Italy…) and its sheer breadth and forensic examination of Germany in WW2 is close to eclipsing the late Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series. Bora is a conflicted anti-hero, a career army officer who has been involved in war crimes since his involvement in the Spanish Civil War and has now reached 1944 when Abwehr officers are persona non grata in Nazi circles because of their latent opposition to the regime. He has now lost a left hand in battle in Russia, a brother to the war and his marriage has crumbled when he returns to Berlin from the Italian front for the state funeral of his uncle, a distinguished physician. But there are hints the death might not have been a suicide. Bora is asked to investigate a separate case by his superiors at the Kripo (Criminal Police) and his sleuthing path will drag him through the customary nest of vipers of the end of the Nazi reign, with mixed motives in abundance, suspects galore and a gallery of true life characters, soldiers and politicians of the era. A saga that grows and grows and traverses with assurance some of humanity’s dark times." CrimeTime
"This is the seventh book in the Bora series. He’s now only 30 but after five years of war in various theatres he is weary and suffering from various wounds including the loss of his left hand. He is serving on the front line in Italy but returns to Berlin for the funeral of an uncle, probably a suicide in the face of Nazi enmity for his liberal views.
A summons to the office of Arthur Nebe, chief of the Criminal Police, is unexpected and Bora wonders whether he too will fall victim to his political unreliability. To his surprise, however, Nebe asks Bora to head an investigation into the recent murder of Niemeyer, the ‘Weimar Prophet’, a clairvoyant who numbered some politically significant persons amongst his clients.
A shortlist of four suspects has already been compiled and Bora is unsure as to the purpose of his appointment. He is assigned a driver, Grimm, who sticks to Bora like glue, and is presumed to be reporting back every step Bora makes. Nonetheless, Bora proceeds with an investigation which soon establishes that the motive for the killing may be other than the personal animus suggested by those already identified.
Almost as soon as he arrives in Berlin, however, Bora perceives signs of tension in his army colleagues and is approached by an old boss who seems to think Bora knows about a coup that’s widely rumoured to be being planned. In fact, Bora knows only what he guesses from the most cryptic hints, although he approaches Stauffenburg at one point, who as history records was crucial to the plot against Hitler.
Whether his actual innocence of the plot will save him is doubtful; his record makes it likely he will be regarded as culpable regardless of the outcome. As he pursues leads to solve the murder, it also becomes clear that the crime is linked to the political machinations in progress, and that he will need to be very careful in announcing his findings.
Bora is a fascinating character, who has the sensitivity of his biological father, a concert pianist, allied with the rigid moral compass of a military aristocrat, derived from his upbringing. While he has only contempt for the Nazi regime, he has little tolerance for political conspirators either; his rebellion has emerged in action where he is able to prevent the worst of Nazi excesses.
Ben Pastor as usual unerringly guides the reader through the dark politics of the Nazi state, providing a subtle appreciation of the flow of power between the various competing authorities. The war has clearly been lost at this stage, and the peculiar state of mind of those living in the battered city is brilliantly conveyed. I liked this as much as any in the series; history realistically recreated around a character that you cannot help but like." Crime Review
"Martin von Bora is recalled from the Italian front to assist the Berlin police investigate the death of a clairvoyant who was connected to the great and the good of Berlin. However, he reinvented himself as the German state passed through the political incarnations from Weimar Republic to Nazism. Berlin is awash with rumours of army insurgence with the name Claus von Stauffenberg being increasingly associated with that. Bora is warned his name is being associated with the plotters and he treads a tightrope surrounded by those who support the cause and those who are terrified of being associated with it. The regime is still fighting on although there are those, including it is suggested his step father who have been forced to take their own life's. Written in Pastor's inimitable style, the tense and dramatic atmosphere of Berlin is vividly recounted: senior army officers clustered in hotel bars and watchful of Bora. Tension is increased through the character of the police officer assigned to work with Bora but whom we are never confident is on his side. An unexpected denouement awaits the reader. Thrilling."Journal Law Society Scotland
"Ben Pastor’s political thrillers take you inside the Third Reich with her protagonist, Wehrmacht colonel Baron Martin von Bora. Bora served in the Abwehr (German military intelligence) until that unit was disbanded in favour of the SS, Gestapo and other agencies. The Abwehr connection taints Bora’s service, because not only was the organisation notoriously and suspiciously inefficient but there were rumours that it was a haven for anti-Hitler plots. There was a large enough grain of truth to that, at least at the organisation’s highest levels, to keep everyone looking over their shoulders.
It’s 10 July 1944 when the story opens. Bora is leading troops in Italy, but he’s traveled back to Berlin for the state funeral of his uncle, a renowned Leipzig physician. He’s barely arrived at the funeral before a former colleague of his uncle whispers to him that his uncle’s suicide may not have been ‘of his own free will.’ Bora lost his left hand in the Soviet campaign and, worse, his younger brother in an airplane crash. His wife Dikta has left him and arranged for their marriage to be annulled, after callously telling him she’d had three abortions during their marriage. These losses have filled Bora with profound regret, especially about Dikta, and she’s never far from his mind.
After the funeral he runs into his old boss in the Abwehr, Benno von Salomon, in the street. He seems panicky and wants to share something, or confess, and insists on a private conference. When Bora reaches the hotel where he’s meeting his mother, she tells him he’s been summoned to a meeting with Arthur Nebe, SS officer and chief of the criminal police (the Kripo). Bora maintains a composed demeanor, so as not to worry his mother, but there are many possible reasons this could be an ominous development. However, the meeting with Nebe is at least more concrete than his encounters with the distracted Salomon.
Nebe wants Bora to investigate the murder of a shady writer/seer/astrologer Walter Niemeyer, nicknamed the Weimar Prophet. He’ll be assigned a police detective as driver and aide, and he has one week to solve the crime. Nebe gives him the paperwork that has been assembled, which includes information on four suspects, and will answer all question but one: Why choose Bora for this kind of routine criminal investigation? Nebe advises Bora to be discreet and report only to him.
The novel then plays out over the next days of Bora’s painstaking investigation. All four suspects the police have already identified must be interviewed, their backgrounds checked, the neighbours questioned, in other words, the bread-and-butter activities of a police inquiry. They’re all interesting and very distinct characters, and they each had a motive and means to murder Niemeyer. In the course of these investigations, author Pastor superbly evokes wartime Berlin and the pall of anxiety that darkens every interaction among its citizens.
As to timing, this is Nazi Germany in the days before Claus von Stauffenberg’s attempt to assassinate Hitler. Tensions, rumours and rumours of rumours run high. Bora wonders what it is that he’s actually supposed to discover. And with whom should he share it, if he does? Von Salomon is on the run and a very loose cannon who might reveal anything under pressure. The detective assigned to him is prickly and not much help. Author Pastor keeps you very close to Bora’s thoughts during the investigation, though you don’t foresee the conclusions he’s coming to. Nebe, the former head of the Abwehr Canaris, the Liepzig mayor Goerdeler, and, of course, von Stauffenberg, among others, are all real characters who died in reprisals after the failed assassination of Hitler. This adds a hefty dose of realism to the story and Bora’s dilemmas.
Bora recognises – as does the reader – that he is operating on the razor’s edge and every step must be carefully calculated. All in all, this seventh of Pastor’s award-winning Bora novels a tension-filled read, with not only history, strong sense of place, and compelling characters, but ethical dilemmas too. You might be reminded of the Philip Kerr novels featuring detective Bernie Gunter (our guide to the series here), but Bora’s feelings about the Nazis are much more between the lines than Gunter’s overt cynicism. Like World War II history? Try Hitler’s Secret by Rory Clements or Ungentlemanly Warfare by Howard Linskey. We reviewed the first Martin Bora novel, Lumen, here." Crime Fiction Lover
"In Pastor’s intelligent...seventh Martin Bora mystery (after 2019’s The Horseman’s Song), the gentlemanly German army officer, who has returned to Berlin from the Italian front in July 1944 for a funeral, receives a summons from Arthur Nebe, the chief of the Criminal Police. Many pages pass before Bora actually meets with Nebe, who wants him to investigate the murder of the enigmatic Walter Niemeyer, who went under a variety of aliases, one of which was the Weimar Prophet, a high-society clairvoyant who flourished in the decadent years before the Nazi takeover of Germany in 1933. Bora learns that Niemeyer was able to convince many of his extrasensory gifts, including high-ranking members of the Third Reich. Filled with period details, the narrative dwells on Bora’s complex family dynamics as well as encounters with such historical figures as Claus von Stauffenberg, a principal in the July 20 plot to kill Hitler. The author’s fine style compensates only in part for the slow-moving mystery plot. Fans of the late Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series may want to give Pastor a try." Publishers Weekly
"I was first introduced to this series when I participated in the blog tour for The Horseman’s Song. Although it was the sixth book to feature Martin von Bora, it was a prequel and therefore perfect for readers like me who’d not read any of the previous books. At the time, I vowed to read the series from the beginning but here we are eighteen months on and I still haven’t!
The Horseman’s Song was set during the Spanish Civil War and a lot of water has passed under the bridge for Bora since then. Now a Lieutenant Colonel, he’s served on the Russian front and in Italy, been wounded and suffered disappointment and unexpected betrayals in his personal life. Even back in 1937 Bora was carrying a fair amount of emotional baggage: things he wanted to forget and actions of which he felt ashamed. The baggage he’s carrying is even heavier now. As he reflects at one point, “For a long time he’d felt alone with his choices.”
Angry at being recalled from serving on the frontline with his regiment, Bora is also curious as to why he’s being ordered to investigate a murder – and who’s really behind the order. During his time in the now disbanded Abwehr (the German military intelligence service) he made a fair few enemies. As he confides to his friend, Bruno, “I can’t understand why on earth the Kripo would pick an ordinary lieutenant colonel to investigate a high-profile case.” (The glossary is helpful for navigating the different military and law enforcement bodies.)
Bora’s suspicions are multiplied when he is issued with a driver, Inspector Florian Grimm, and what seems to be a predetermined list of suspects. Ostensibly there to assist him in his investigation, Bora soon finds Grimm not just an annoyingly persistent presence but more like a watcher than an aide. Nevertheless, Bora embarks on the investigation with his customary thoroughness and vigour. “He rebuilt, from what a victim left behind, the substructure of deeds, relationships and secrets that permitted understanding and the solving of the crime.” Was the victim killed for what he knew or what he foresaw?
The author skillfully evokes the atmosphere of wartime Berlin with its bombed-out buildings and beleaguered citizens. I liked the little details such as the fact that phosphorescent paint was applied to pavements to aid pedestrians during the blackout. “In the spectral geometry that allowed Berliners to orient themselves across the blacked-out city, trams with shaded windows crossed the night, letting out a blue-green glimmer like ignis fatuus or the trail of glow-worms.”
With the war going badly for Germany, the atmosphere of suspicion, intrigue and rumour has reached fever pitch. Little wonder that Bora feels distinctly uneasy about being approached by his old commander, now in a fragile mental state, who claims to have knowledge of a secret that could endanger them both. That secret, as trailed in the blurb, is the attempt to assassinate Hitler by Claus von Stauffenberg on 20th July 1944. Knowing from history the harsh punishment meted out to those involved in the (unfortunately) unsuccessful plot introduces an additional element of jeopardy. His knowledge of the plot and the likely repercussions – whether it should succeed or fail – will test Bora’s loyalty.
As with previous books, the reader gets a direct insight into Bora’s thoughts through extracts from his personal diary. It’s the only place he feels able to unburden himself, although it may be just a little too much introspection for some readers. For me, it added to the impression of him as a thoughtful, observant, perceptive but rather solitary man who prides himself on his ability to control his emotions and is a formidable opponent when the situation demands it. I thought his devotion to his mother, Nina, one of his most attractive characteristics, even if she is one of the few women to command his respect.
Bora observes at one point, “Order and disorder are the only two states of being. By inclination, he belonged to the first, yet he repeatedly found himself in the second.” That contradiction is what makes Bora such a fascinating, multifaceted character and The Night of Shooting Stars such an interesting and rewarding read. Will Bora survive to return in an eighth book? You’ll have to read The Night of Shooting Stars to find out.
The Night of Shooting Stars – in fact, the whole Martin Bora series – would be perfect for readers mourning the end of (the late lamented) Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series. In three words: Gripping, tense, authentic. What Cathy Read Next (August 2020 blogtour)