Thursday, February 10, 2011

Lumen, by Ben Pastor

Bitter Lemon Press
Originally published 1999

Lumen is an interesting book. It is a novel of crime fiction, but the actual crimes and their solutions tend to take a back seat to the main character, Captain Martin Bora of the Wehrmacht Intelligence division.  Bora is recently arrived in Cracow, just after the German army has invaded Poland, and finds himself involved in an unusual case involving the Abbess Kazimierza, a nun who supposedly has prophetic powers and who at times bears the stigmata.  He had seen her before her death when he would accompany his superior officer Colonel Hofer, who went to see the Abbess on personal matters, so when she is killed, Bora is assigned to look into the case.  He is assisted in his work by Father John Malecki, an American priest who has been assigned by the Vatican to investigate claims of her mystical abilities, and then later to examine the circumstances of her death. Bora is young, still in his 20s, newly married, and has left his wife behind in Germany.  But his  investigative prowess does not actually take center stage in this novel -- although he's quite good at what he does -- it is his gradual awareness of growing doubts about a cause that supports mass killing, cover ups, racial superiority and the deaths of innocent people which make Bora stand out as a character. He's a scrupulous person whose sense of duty doesn't necessarily extend over the full range of Nazi ideology and practices, and his own moral compass makes him a target for potential enemies in the SD (the Sicherheitsdienst -- Security Service), who were responsible for overseeing and carrying out many of the atrocities perpetrated against the Polish people.  And there's no room in the Wehrmacht for a "young captain with scruples," according to his commanding officer Colonel Schenck:

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 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...We're all  in it.  If it's guilt, we're all guilty. This is the way that it is.
Scenes change quickly in this novel, and the action is offered up from different perspectives throughout the story.  The investigation into the death of the Abbess lasts from beginning to end, while other mysteries crop up in the meantime adding to the crime elements of the novel.  At the same time, it's a solid piece of historical fiction, examining the psyche of a man who finds himself in a situation where normal laws don't apply and the world seems to have gone crazy. There are, believe it or not, bits and pieces of humor in spots, but overall, given the circumstances, there's little to smile about during this time.  Pastor's novel is no lightweight thriller; she's written a much edgier story of a dark time in history.

Definitely recommended. Lumen is supposed to be the first in a series of books about Martin Bora, so I'll look forward to the second. It's also another fine addition to my growing collection of books from Bitter Lemon Press.

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