Pastor’s solid fifth Martin Bora mystery (after 2015’s Tin Sky) takes the Wehrmacht investigator from Moscow, where he’s been stationed, to Crete in early June 1941, soon after the German occupation of the island and three weeks before Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union. Bora’s mission is to secure 60 bottles of choice Cretan wine on behalf of NKVD chief Lavrenti Beria. But once the detective arrives in Crete, he receives a much different assignment. A British POW has reported to the Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau that, during the recent battle for Crete, a British NCO observed eight German paratroopers enter the home of a prominent Swiss national, where he soon heard gunfire. After the departure of the paratroopers, this witness discovered all the civilian occupants slain. While Bora isn’t as memorable a character as Bernie Gunther, Philip Kerr fans will still find this depiction of an honest German cop working under adverse wartime circumstances intriguing.
Rittmeister (cavalry officer) Martin Bora is military attaché at Germany’s Moscow embassy. It is June 1, Bora knows that in three weeks he’ll be leading a panzer unit in Germany’s invasion of Russia, and he’s looking forward to it. But, first, he must travel to Crete to buy wine, as ordered by Josef Stalin. Bora arrives on the island very soon after German paratroops have paid a very bloody price to secure Crete, and many Greek and British troops have escaped to the island’s rugged, mountainous interior. Bora soon learns that, before delivering Stalin’s wine, he must first investigate the murders of an acquaintance of Himmler’s and the Cretans the man employed. A trek to the crime site almost costs Bora his life, leaving the officer’s youthful, aristocratic sangfroid a bit shaken. Pastor has astutely made this younger Bora seem more callow than he does in earlier installments, set later in the war (Tin Sky, 2015). Here Bora is bothered by not yet having been grievously wounded, and he’s untroubled by National Socialism, although he’s carrying a banned copy of Joyce’s Ulysses and recalling Odysseus’ journey home after the Trojan War. Solid history, convoluted crime.
Shots Crime an Thriller eZine:
There will come a day when the British reader will be able to follow the career of Ben Pastor’s complex and compelling hero Martin Bora from the Spanish Civil War to the end of World War II in chronological order, which is my way of complaining that at least six of the novels in the ‘Bora Cycle’ are as yet unpublished in the UK. But then I really don’t want that to happen as it might mean the end of the series.
However, we should be grateful to Bitter Lemon Press for championing five Bora novels in this country, the latest being The Road to Ithaca, a long, complex and cleverly imagined story set in Crete immediately after the German invasion in 1941 which shows Ben (Verbena) Pastor totally in command of her exhaustive research and writing at the peak of her powers.
Martin Bora – or Martin-Heinz Douglas Freiherr (Baron) von Bora to give him his full moniker – is a German aristocrat, a Catholic and an officer in the Wehrmacht, a classic example of the good, honourable soldier having to fight for a bad, dishonourable cause. The Road to Ithaca begins with Bora serving in the German diplomatic mission in Moscow less than a month before the Nazi invasion code-named Barbarossa, which Bora knows is coming. Hitler’s armies have, meanwhile, invaded Greece and Crete and this sets up an unlikely and unwanted mission for Bora. Lavrenti Beria, the head of Stalin’s feared secret police, has a yearning for a particularly rare Cretan wine and to keep him happy (if only for a few more weeks); Bora is dispatched to Crete to obtain supplies.
Once on the newly-conquered island, Bora finds he has a new, equally unwelcome, mission. A prominent Swiss scholar (and advisor to Himmler) has been found dead in a massacre of unarmed civilians. The prime suspects are a squad of German paratroopers seen in the area and supposedly witnessed by English soldiers who are now prisoners-of-war. Bora’s unenviable task is to investigate the massacre as a war crime and absolve the paratroopers, but if they didn’t do it, who did? The German army is uncooperative and the paratroopers are determined to protect their own, especially as one of their officers, a devoted National Socialist, holds a boyhood grudge against the aristocratic Bora family.
With the help of a reluctant local police inspector and a very reluctant female American archaeologist, Bora has to trek into the Cretan hills on an odyssey to find the truth. Analogies with Odysseus’ long and dangerous journey home to his wife after the Trojan War are plentiful and quite deliberate (the clue is in the title, plus Bora even carries a battered copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses in his knapsack) and not just because the scenery and archaeological remains – Crete is described as ‘a pitiless time machine’– beautifully conjure the world of the Homeric myths.
One would expect the archaeological background to be accurate – there is even an honorary mention of the legendary British archaeologist John Pendlebury, of Pembroke College Cambridge (warning: there’s a clue there), who worked for British Intelligence and who died in the early stages of the battle for Crete. Ben Pastor is herself an archaeologist, but she also writes supremely well about serving soldiers and how they react to moral and political threats as well as enemy action.
The plot expands way beyond Bora’s investigation of a war crime and although he makes it back to the temporary safety of the German embassy in Moscow, he is still, like Odysseus, a long way from home.
It is May 1941 as Wehrmacht Captain Martin Bora, age twenty-seven, of the Abwehr, German military intelligence, is sent to Crete to solve a murder that could embarrass the Reich and lead to a major diplomatic disaster. A representative of the Red Cross close to SS chief Heinrich Himmler has been killed during an inspection, and Bora is under intense pressure to solve the crime quickly, and to provide a scapegoat, a politically satisfactory one.
That is only the surface though. Far more dangerous undercurrents wait for him at every turn. This is the fifth novel in the series by Ben Pastor, a woman incidentally, who immigrated from Italy and who became an American when she moved to Texas. She was a professor in Illinois, Ohio, and Vermont, and now spends half her time in her native Italy according to her bio.
The Bora novels are intensely researched and carefully plotted mysteries with a hero who carries a forbidden copy of James Joyce Ulysses in his pocket, and frequently is at odds with the wishes and orders of his superiors and his own prickly conscience.
In The Road to Ithaca he is sent to the mountains of Crete, where at first it looks as if the crime was friendly fire from a unit of trigger happy German paratroopers accused of a war crime, but as Bora looks deeper he is drawn into increasingly dangerous territory among local bandits and resistance fighters and his own morality in a world of double crosses, multiple identities, revenge, and double agents.
Pastor brings in big issues such as where does a man’s duty to his country and to himself take him, and how much moral ambiguity can a man allow before he himself is tainted? She writes vividly, mastering suspense while asking deeper questions, her characters drawn in subtle shades of gray for the most part, but with a pervasive sense of the evil at the core of the Nazi power structure, and how it corrupted even the best of men.
There are also well-drawn characters from history such as Himmler, and in this work Erskine Caldwell and his wife Margaret Bourke-White, correspondents in Moscow where Bora is with the German Embassy as the novel opens.
Like the private eye of mystery fiction Bora often finds himself a lone wary knight alone in a quest for relative truth, a Philip Marlowe with echoes of Maigret trying to maintain sanity in a world gone mad.
Here he is facing death in a Cretan brothel:
“Dark, dark, smell, sounds. Suspended, instantaneous loneliness. The trappings and locus of his death manifested themselves to Bora, who’d imagined them very differently when he was talking to Kostaridis (the local Police chief), though he had said it didn’t matter where he’d die. This was where it would happen.”
That’s just a small sample of how well written this book is. Pastor does indulge in a bit of foreshadowing, letting us know a tragic event looms in Bora’s future, that I could personally have done without, but it is a small caveat and not overdone or overly detrimental.
I’ll certainly be looking for the first four books in the series from an author who echoes writers like Graham Greene, Eric Ambler, Alan Furst, Hans Helmut Kirst, and Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels while creating a milieu and a hero both original and classic.