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Reviews Horseman's Song

Publishers Weekly Starred Review

Set in 1937, Pastor’s outstanding sixth mystery featuring German investigator Martin Bora (after 2017’s The Road to Ithaca) makes effective use of the death of Federico García Lorca, the celebrated poet, during the Spanish Civil War. Bora, who’s serving as a lieutenant in Franco’s Spanish Foreign Legion, discovers Lorca’s body on the edge of a mule track in the Aragon region. Bora doesn’t recognize the dead man, who has a bullet hole in the back of his head. Bora’s commanding officer, Col. Jacinto Costa y Serrano, identifies Lorca from a photograph Bora retrieved from the body, but when soldiers are dispatched to retrieve the corpse, it’s no longer there. Serrano fears that the Reds will use the killing against the Nationalists. Bora’s inquiries parallel those of American Philip Walton, a volunteer with the anti-Franco forces, who’s also opposed to the murder being used as political propaganda. Pastor does an excellent job of creating a back-story for her lead that fits in well with the previous books. 


Top Ten Adult Fiction for February chosen by Independent Booksellers Affiliate Programme.

Based on the murder of famed poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca, this fictionalised version of events sees German officer Martin Bora embark upon a dangerous investigation into his death. In doing so he must ally himself with Walton, an American officer and crucially an enemy. In this thrilling crime novel Lorca and Walton must overcome personal and political barriers if they are to succeed in an increasingly perilous situation. Full of danger, suspense and historical intrigue this is crime fiction at its very best. 


NB Literary Magazine:

The Horseman’s Song is an accomplished historical thriller set in Spain in 1937. This novel is confidently plotted and the tempo is judged to perfection, so the storytelling has a balanced feel to it. The intriguing premise of the novel centres around the disappearance of one of Spain’s greatest poets, Federico García Lorca, believed to have been executed by Franco’s supporters in Granada in 1936. Pastor builds her story on the fact that his body has never been found; perhaps his arrest in Grenada was not the occasion of his death, what if he was killed later? Elsewhere? Equally fascinating as exploiting this gap in historical knowledge is the investigation that Pastor gives us. In her fiction, two men, on either side of the battle lines, are compelled for differing reasons to investigate the death of the poet. Despite the political gulf between the men, they initially circle each other, they are drawn towards cooperating in order to solve a heinous crime. As a leftist and an important playwright/poet García Lorca is an enemy of Franco’s nationalists, the obvious suspects are therefore the fascists. However, García Lorca was a homosexual, despised by many because of it, the motive could be much more personal.

Martin Bora is a German officer fighting for Franco’s Nationalists in Spain, although he reports to his Abwehr superior too. The lieutenant is part of the Nationalists Foreign Legion based in northern Spain. One side of El Bauarte are the nationalists, the other, the Republicans (the loyalist forces). Bora discovers a body on an old goat path, the man has been shot in the nape of the neck, execution style, he is not wearing a uniform, there is no identification, just one photograph. There are a number of odd things that stand out for Bora, he reports the body to Colonel Serrano on his return to camp. The Colonel is ambivalent about the death until he identifies the victim from Bora’s description. He won’t say who the man is but he instructs Bora to retrieve the body immediately.

American volunteer republican soldier Major Philip Walton was expecting his friend García Lorca last night, but he didn’t show up. Walton organises a search only to find the poet’s body, which they take for burial. Colonel Serrano thinks the Republicans killed García Lorca to make them look bad, Walton assumes the nationalists did it. Serrano orders Bora to retrieve the body from the republicans (it has propaganda value for them). Bora is still unaware of the identity of the dead man until he meets with his Abwehr contact, Herr Cziffra, who explains who the man was. What starts out as an investigation to catch a killer becomes more personal for Bora as he becomes more familiar with the man’s work. Of course, it is very personal for Walton too. Both men are aware of each other, they reluctantly accept they must work together…

Historical crime fiction set during the years of the Third Reich has become a populous and exciting sub-genre; Philip Kerr, Luke McCallin, Boris Pasternak and Rebecca Cantrell, for example. Ben Pastor got in early and her work still stands out for its originality. The Horseman’s Song has several features that make it a superior read. The historical setting is beautifully realised. The civil war, with all the peculiarities that entails; opposing soldiers visiting the same town and brothel but also the pain and sorrow of families torn apart by conflict. The complexities of factional divisions within the Republican ranks and the interference by Russia and Germany. Bora is stationed at a remote of military outpost away from the main conflict, he comes as an invader, but gradually investigating the murder means that he comes to respect the cultural life of Spain and the poetry of García Lorca.

Bora and Walton can never have a meeting of minds on an ideology which sets up an interesting dynamic when they are forced to cooperate. They have to investigate in different ways initially, avoid each other, talk to different witnesses, or even the same witnesses but under different circumstances, they have different approaches and motives. They hate each other but grudgingly come to understand each other better, this relationship is fascinating.

The characters are rounded, Bora is unapologetic, a realist, he is young, susceptible to love and his love of the poet’s work helps to make García Lorca a presence that overhangs the novel. He gradually comes to realise that there is personal danger here too, he is on a long list of possible suspects of the crime, but he is also on knife edge demonstrating sympathy for a degenerate leftist:

“There are lots of queers in Spain. It’s typical of intellectuals everywhere to be sexual deviants. Lorca was a self-indulgent pervert.” [Herr Cziffra]

The Horseman’s Song is a thoughtful thriller that plays with a historical mystery in a manner respectful of the known facts. Documents released in 2015 appear to verify the claim that the Grenada fascists killed García Lorca in 1936, but his body has never been found.

This is the sixth published novel in the Martin Bora series, it is set prior to the others. Pastor writes intelligent thrillers that help us to understand the past a bit better, which is quite an achievement.


Times Crime Club

An aristocratic German military intelligence officer during the rise of the Nazis, Martin Bora is a good man in a world where evil has been let loose. Since 1999 Ben Pastor has written five Bora thrillers, building an atmospheric picture of Europe in the Second World War, the world in which the cultured, principled Bora and his allies attempt to do the right thing and stay alive. The Horseman's Song, Pastor's sixth Bora book, doubles back to earlier times, sending the thoughtful young soldier detective into the epic tragedy that is the Spanish Civil War, where a troubling encounter with the murdered corpse of Federico Garcia Lorca, which sets in train a dangerous investigation. (In real life, the poet's body has never been found.) To celebrate the publication of The Horseman's Song, publisher Bitter Lemon Press is offering five Crime Club readers the chance to win four of the backlist. 


Foreword Reviews

Ben Pastor’s Martin Bora series mixes historical fact with fiction and is told from the perspective of Bora, a World War II German officer and master detective. The Horseman’s Song, the sixth entry in the saga (and a prequel to the other Bora mysteries), adds a provocative twist, with Bora investigating the murder of legendary poet Federico Garcia Lorca—an unsolved case in real life. It is 1937, and Bora is a fledgeling lieutenant on loan to Spanish loyalist forces in the Aragon region during the country’s civil war. Tensions are high, with loyalist and red nationalist camps within a well-aimed artillery shell from each other. When Bora comes upon Lorca’s corpse in the hills, much is at stake; whichever side is responsible for the much-lauded writer’s death would lose support from the Spanish people. As Bora conducts his investigation, Lorca’s nationalist friend, Philip Walton, carries out his own hunt for the killer. Both Bora and Walton are committed to finding justice—if they don’t kill each other first The Horseman’s Song contains the elements of a classic whodunit, but the novel’s primary attraction is its setting and characters. Pastor’s writing is thick with atmosphere; one can taste the dust and blood of the region. As the beleaguered soldiers on both sides bicker and brace themselves for the cataclysm to come, Pastor weaves a poignant, convincing portrait of life during wartime. Bora himself is a compelling protagonist, erudite enough to recite Aristotle to himself while repelling an ambush and innocent enough to fall for a local lass who changes his perspective on love. His eventual confrontations with the older, more cynical Walton, while late in coming, are the book’s highlight. Mystery aficionados may find the book slow going; though packed with incidents, the story prefers to move at a trot rather than achieve a full gallop. But if The Horseman’s Song isn’t as dynamic as it could have been, it still has Pastor’s authoritative voice and its gritty wartime setting to recommend it. 


Midwest Book Review

In the summer of 1937, the civil war between Spanish nationalists and republicans rages on. Situated in the bloody sierras of Aragon, among Generalissimo Franco's volunteers is Martin Bora, the twenty-something German officer. Presently a lieutenant in the Spanish Foreign Legion, Bora lives the tragedy around him as an intoxicating epic, between idealism and youthful recklessness. The first doubts, however, rise in Bora's mind when he happens on the body of Federico Garcia Lorca, a brilliant poet, progressive and homosexual. Who murdered him? Why? The official version does not convince Bora, who begins a perilous investigation. His inquiry paradoxically proceeds alongside that which is being carried out by an "enemy": Philip Walton, an American member of the International Brigades. Soon enough the German and the New Englander will join forces, and their cooperation will not only culminate in a thrilling chase after a murderer but also in a very human, existential face-to-face between two adversaries forever changed by their crime-solving encounter. An expertly crafted mystery by a master of the genre, that is also available in a digital book format (Kindle, $13.95), "The Horseman's Song" is an especially recommended addition to community library Mystery/Suspense collections. Also very highly recommended for dedicated mystery buffs are the other novels by Ben Pastor that feature the character of Martin Bora including "Lumen", "Liar Moon", "A Dark Song of Blood", and "The Road to Ithaca".



Ben Pastor is the pseudonym of Maria Verbena Volpi, an Italian-born author who has taught archaeology at a series of universities in the United States. An abiding theme of her books is the psychological damage that war can inflict on even the most balanced and unprejudiced of people.

Martin Bora, the protagonist in The Horseman’s Song, made his first appearance in Lumen, where he and a Chicago priest investigated the death of a nun in Nazi-occupied Poland. In her latest novel, Pastor takes Bora back to the Spanish Civil War in 1937. He’s a fascinating character, a German officer turned detective, clever, tenacious yet deeply troubled and suspicious of his companions in the Nationalist ranks.

When Bora finds the dead body of Federico Garcia Lorca, the Spanish poet and playwright, he is determined to track down the killer. It’s also a mission embraced by Philip Walton, an American volunteer in the Internationalists. As the two men begin their painstaking work, they move ever closer against the background of shifting successes and failures in the war. Though neither is Spanish, each of them understands the significance of Lorca’s death to a nation that idolised his talent. While Bora and Walton move slowly forward, they take care to glance over their shoulders at men who are nominally on their side but whose minds have been warped by armed conflict.

Bora is based on Claus von Stauffenberg, the German officer who took a leading role in the failed July plot of 1944 to assassinate Hitler. He paid for his betrayal with his life. Bora is equally tormented, forever uncertain about loyalties and moral obligations. As the novel shifts between the opposing sides, there is a steady build-up of tension and excitement. The Horseman’s Song is not an easy read but well worth the effort. The writing is sharp, the tone gritty, the characterisations vivid and the atmosphere of war brilliantly evoked. It’s a novel that destroys romantic notions about the Spanish conflict and shows how quickly hopes turned sour and disillusion set in. Highly recommended.


Journal of the Law Society of Scotland:

 If I was cool about the last two, allow me to blow very hot about this novel. As hot as the post on the high Spanish sierra where Bora finds himself in 1937. In theory he is there as a Foreign Legion lieutenant on the side of Franco: in truth as an Abwehr agent. The representatives of the Internationalists are on the other side of the mountain. They frequent the same towns and share the same women. We find ourselves in the middle of a classic phony war. What is also shared by Bora and Philip "Felipe" Watson, a war-weary American who is his opposite number on the Internationalist side is a love of the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca. Lorca was probably the most famous Spanish poet of the 20th century. He disappeared during the war and his remains never been discovered. 

It is clear that this love of Lorca's work is shared by Pastor (real name Maria Verbena Volpi). She has taken the mystery as the plot for the novel, and the man's work as a leitmotif. She has done much more. Seventy years ago, Hemingway produced some of his best work in For Whom the Bell Tolls, his taut, spare prose evoking the people and landscape of Spain, and some of the horrors of a civil war. Pastor has built on that legacy, with some of the finest representation of that time and place I have ever read. If I find her plots slightly implausible, I'm prepared to forgive her this time. Watson and his motley crew of Internationalists are thoroughly credible: we learn more of Bora's back story: and we meet flame-haired Remedios the bruja (witch). Now may Ms Volpi forgive me if I misinterpret an influence, but I can never forget Carlos Castaneda's One Hundred Years of Solitude in which Remedios the Beauty, after an eventful life, was hauled up to heaven by her long red tresses. Perhaps the two ladies were related in some way.  Certainly, the sexual spey-wifery here adds some spice to the book and intensifies the rivalry between the two main protagonists. 




In July 1937 a civil war is raging between Franco’s Nationalists and the Republican faction in Spain. A young German officer named Martin Bora is fighting alongside Franco’s forces in the Spanish Foreign Legion in the sierras of Aragon.

For Bora the conflict is briefly interrupted when he finds the body of the celebrated Spanish poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca who appears to have been murdered. He is tasked by a superior with investigating who carried out Lorca’s murder and discovering the motives behind the killing.

As Bora’s inquiries progress it becomes apparent that an American named Walton who is fighting for the Republican side is also carrying out his own investigation and the two men make an uneasy attempt to share information. However, matters are seriously complicated when both of them begin relationships with the same woman.

Bora unpicks a complicated tale during his investigation into the death of the flamboyant, gay Spanish poet who has as many enemies as admirers in his war-torn homeland. The misery of a country at war with itself and the complexities of fractured communities is vividly evoked by author Ben Pastor in this the sixth in the Martin Bora series. The Horseman’s Song is, in fact, a prequel to Bora’s tale and re-visits events alluded to in earlier novels when he was in his twenties.

Pastor does a fine job of portraying the epic landscapes of the Aragon region of Spain and conveying its sun-baked sierras and dusty towns damaged by the bitter civil war. Lorca’s poetry is often interwoven with the narrative of this crime thriller and indeed it takes its title from one of his poems. Bora is changed forever by both the war and Lorca’s murder as his youthful zeal and idealism give way to hard-won experience and a realisation of the grim realities of war. The Horseman’s Song is another thoughtful, poetic work from author Ben Pastor that interweaves historical reality with intriguing speculative crime fiction in both sensitive and skilful style.

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