Lumen by Ben Pastor

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.


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.


Filed under Fiction, Pastor Ben

8 responses to “Lumen by Ben Pastor

  1. I still don’t get the way they chose their titles. I saw they chose Petra Hammesfahr as German writer. I have huge piles of her books here and read a fair amount always deploring that I cannot review her as she hasn’t been translated, seems over now as The Lie and The Sinner are out in English. Still… the German crime writers are numerous and there are many better than Hammesfahr. The Swiss author Glauser is different. He is a classic in his own right. Also the German Fauser, a real classic although I haven’t read The Snowman yet but I read other Fauser books and do deplore the authors untimely and mysterious death. If you haven’t read The Snowman yet, I’m sure that’s up your alley. I’m planning on reading it soon.
    Lumen does sound like the beginning of a series with potential, Bora sounds like an interesting character. All the way through your breview I was reminded of a movie but cannot put my finger on it…

  2. Pastor was born in Italy but lives and works in America, so I expect the book was written in English. I haven’t read any of Glauser or Fauser but I will try to watch for them since you praise them.

    Is that the Nesbo Snowman? I’ve wondered about it but haven’t been thrilled with the Scandanavian authors to be honest. The ones I’ve read seem to be lacking something.

  3. Fauser’s crime novel is also called The Snowman, but it is much older and must be very good. Nesbo’s Snowman is awful. At least I thought so. Not plausible, just sensationalist. I’m tired of serial killers who were traumatized in their childhood…

  4. Ok thanks. I wasn’t much interested in Nesbo’s Snowman–it got a lot of press but I wasn’t motivated to read it.

  5. Interesting idea for a character, indeed.
    Oddly, your last quote reminded me of Farhenheit 451, when Guy Montag starts having doubts and speaks with his officer.

  6. Interesting. I do wonder where the series takes the character. In a book or two it won’t be that credible for him to still have his position and yet be someone the reader can to a degree sympathise with.

    Or perhaps it will. It smacks of gimmickry as a character choice but execution is everything. Still, I’d struggle if two books in he’s helping shove jews onto trains while working out who killed the quartermaster or whatever.

    Have you read any of Philip Kerr’s Berlin novels incidentally?

  7. At the end of the book it mentions the fate, or partial fate of a couple of the characters. One of those mentioned is Bora–another–one of his commanding officers.

    The book begins with Bora naive and then he moves to denial. It ends with him deciding whether to chose career over personal morality. It’s still early days for the war, so who knows what lies ahead. I agree though–it’s a fine line in terms of what we can accept from this character. The book treads on interesting territory–the commission of crimes during wartime and the fine line between orders and crimes against humanity.

    No I haven’t read any Kerr. I’ve seen some of the books and wondered about them.

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