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Cracow, Poland, October 1939: The Germans have recently occupied Poland and are seeking to establish their authority. Captain Martin Bora of the Wehrmacht (the German army) has just arrived in the city from the battlefield to take up a posting to Intelligence. His boss asks Bora to drive him to a convent every day to see the renowned Abbess, rumoured to have mystic and healing powers. A few days later, though, she is found shot dead in the grounds of her convent. Bora is asked to investigate and report back. He proceeds to investigate who shot her and why, but as his investigation continues, there are more questions for Bora and the reader. Where does this case fit in with the priorities of the occupying forces?
This is an unusual historical mystery. We learn little of the character of the abbess or the other nuns - what we learn is reported at quite a distant remove. The most significant religious character in the novel is a Polish-American priest from Chicago, Father John Malecki. Bora and he develop an uneasy friendship. In fact, the mystery plot turns out to be quite slight. The novel is much more interesting in its portrait of a time and place and one man's reactions to it.
Captain Martin Bora is an intriguing character. Pastor's approach to creating a sympathetic hero who is a German soldier is to show Bora's increasing distance from the behaviour and views of his fellow officers, and his growing doubts about Nazi ideology and practice. It becomes very clear in the course of the story that while Bora wants to find out the truth about what happened, his bosses may not share that aim. I enjoyed the witty portrait of Colonel Schenk, who talks at great length to Bora about the importance of fathering racially pure Aryan children, and who is committed to the cause.
Lumen is billed as first in a series, to my surprise as it doesn't really read as a series novel, and a German military investigator in 1939/40 with doubts about the cause doesn't seem set for a long career. From my online research, Pastor has written a second novel about Bora, this time set in Italy later in the war. It's not available to buy or borrow at the moment but I hope Bitter Lemon are able to bring it back into print and to a wider audience, too.
This review first appeared at www.thebookbag.co.uk
Format: Paperback 313 pages
Publisher: Bitter Lemon January 2011
RRP: £8.99, Current Amazon price £7.19