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.