Saturday, April 28, 2012
Liar Moon, by Ben Pastor
Bitter Lemon Press, 2012 (UK)
originally published 2001
trade paper ed.
Liar Moon is Ben Pastor's second novel to feature Wehrmacht Major Martin Bora, following her earlier novel Lumen. Bora is headquartered near Verona, in northern Italy, where the Fascists still maintain control and the Nazis are occupying the territory. And although Bora is in the German Army, after what he's been through and what he's seen, he has no heart for this war. He's a man with a conscience and a troubled soul, with very little stomach for SS policies, which, by the way, has not gone unnoticed by the SS. Bora has to walk a very fine line between what's in his heart and what he is expected to do as a German army officer. Now, after a partisan attack, he's also been injured, leaving him with worries about his future with his wife.
His regular work is interrupted by a directive from headquarters asking him to help police inspector Sandro Guidi investigate the death of a prominent Fascist of Verona, one Vittorio Lisi. Lisi's death was publicly declared to have been the result of a stroke, but Lisi was known as "a comrade of the first hour," by Mussolini himself, and the real reason for his death might be embarrassing to the current regime: Lisi was murdered while in his wheelchair, run down by a car within the grounds of his own home. Ultimately, the tarnishing of the Fascist image is what ultimately convinces Bora to help Guidi, despite the fact that he doesn't really want to do this. Guidi is also hard at work on a case involving an escaped convict who also happens to be a sniper.
Liar Moon is very much a character-oriented novel, a work of historical fiction with a different slant -- rather than repeating what her readers already know about the horrors of the Nazi regime, Pastor tends to focus on what the war has done to her main protagonist Martin Bora. It's an interesting choice to have the war related through his perspective; even better is Guidi, who feels much the same way as Bora and is often horrified at things Bora does, including arranging transport for Jews on their way to their final destination and arresting a priest, who acts as Bora's confessor. What Guidi doesn't understand is that Bora is not really in a position to take up a public rant against the Nazis or the Italian Fascists even though Bora thinks largely along the same lines as the Inspector -- it is largely through interior monologues that Guidi expresses himself and it's also what is not said between the two main characters that really makes this book a very interesting read. While the focus is on the characters, the mystery of Lisi's death provides a few good red herrings to keep the reader guessing, as well as a conclusion that while sad and somber, makes sense and comes as a bit of a surprise.
At the same time, Liar Moon seemed to drag in spots, and although both of Guidi's cases cross paths, the sniper subplot was not so intruiging as to keep me glued to that particular investigation, and I eagerly waited to get back to the unspoken interactions between Bora and Guidi as well as the Lisi murder. It's also a very melancholy novel, much more angst ridden than its predecessor Lumen, which also moved a bit faster in terms of pace, although admittedly it had its fair share of darkness. Liar Moon is very intelligently written, although personally, I felt it worked very well as a novel of historical fiction, less so as crime fiction. I've also seen it reviewed as a "thriller," but I'm afraid I have to disagree with that assessment -- while the core mystery is good, it's the main characters who are really at the heart of the novel, not the whodunit.
You can read other reviews of Liar Moon at Eurocrime; Richard Z. Santos also reviews it for CriminalElement.com; the book rated a solid 4.5 on Amazon and also received some nice star ratings on Goodreads. I'd recommend it to readers who like historical fiction that deals with the Nazi occupation of Italy or World War II; I'd also recommend it to crime fiction readers with the caveat that it does move rather slowly and depends more on characters than plot. Overall -- it's a good read and one I've been waiting for since I read Lumen; I'll definitely be following the rest of the series as the novels are translated and published.