Praise for Ben Pastor's Lumen:
“Pastor’s plot is well crafted, her prose sharp. . . . A disturbing mix of detection and reflection.”—Publishers Weekly
"Rivets the reader with its twist of historical realities. A historical piece, it faithfully reproduces the grim canvas of war. A character study, it captures the thoughts and actions of real people, not stereotypes.”—The Free Lance-Star
“And don’t miss Lumen by Ben Pastor. . . . An interesting, original, and melancholy tale.”—Literary Review
Italy, September 1943. The Italian government switches sides and declares war on Germany. The north of Italy is controlled by the fascist puppets of Germany; the south liberated by Allied forces fighting their way up the peninsula.
Having survived hell on the Russian front, Wehrmacht major and aristocrat Baron Martin von Bora is sent to Verona. He is ordered to investigate the murder of a prominent local fascist: a bizarre death threatening to discredit the regime’s public image. The prime suspect is the victim’s twenty-eight-year-old widow Clara.
Haunted by his record of opposition to SS policies in Russia, Bora must watch his step. Against the backdrop of relentless anti-partisan warfare and the tragedy of the Holocaust, a breathless chase begins.
Ben Pastor, born and now back in Italy, lived for thirty years in the United States, working as a university professor in Vermont. The first in the Martin Bora series, Lumen, was published by Bitter Lemon Press in May 2011.
About the Author
Ben Pastor: Ben Pastor, born in Italy, lived for thirty years in the United States, working as a university professor in Vermont. She is the author of other novels including The Water Thief and The Fire Walker (set in Roman times and published to high acclaim in the US by St. Martin’s Press), and is considered one of the most talented writers in the field of historical fiction. In 2008 she won the prestigious Premio Zaragoza for best historical fiction. She writes in English.
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By Ben Pastor
BITTER LEMON PRESSCopyright © 2001 Ben Pastor
All right reserved.
Chapter OneVerona, German-occupied Northern Italy 9 September 1943
"Si deve far coraggio, maggiore."
Martin Bora was in too much pain to say he understood.
"Dobbiamo pulire le ferite."
In too much pain to say he understood that, also. Courage. Cleaning the wounds. Blood throbbed in his lids, by quick flickers in the blind glow of eyes tightly shut, and at the back of his mouth, where his teeth clenched hard, another heartbeat scanned frantic time in his head.
"Coraggio, coraggio. Try to take heart."
A small pool of saliva rose under his tongue, until he had to swallow. The lifting of the stretcher so exasperated the agony in his left arm, the whole length of his body crumpled with it. All he could gather was a convulsed short breathing at the top of his chest, as in one who must cry, or cry out.
They were laying him on the emergency-room table. Taking off his boots. His left leg seemed to tear open with the removal of the rigid leather, as if they were wrenching the bone from his knee. Lights burst over him, human voices travelled from great distances to him, at him, into him.
Blood sprayed as medics cut and dug through the gore of his clothes, and Bora would not let go but grew hard and grim and desperate, trying to resist the pain. To fight it, as if one could fight this, when his whole left side felt crushed in a giant vice and there was no hope of pulling himself out without shredding arm and leg in the process. His left hand, torn already to filaments and gushing blood, gulped and gulped his life out – lungs, stomach, bones – all seemingly heaving from the severance at the end of his arm, a sick red jumble of what had filled his body until now.
They were undoing his army breeches. Anxious hands reached into the blood-matted fleece of his groin, searched thigh and knee. His neck arched rigid in the strain of his back to rise.
"Hold him down, hold him down," a voice said. "You'll have to hold him down, Nurse."
Joints braced as in a seizure, Bora was fighting pain, not being held down.
He could not swallow nor could he say he could not swallow, and when someone gave him water – he knew his mouth was unclenching because breath surged out of it in spasms – it gurgled back up his throat to the sides of his face.
They would work on his left arm next. He hardened for it, and still a paroxysm of pain wrenched his mouth open and he was racked into a fit of trembling but would not scream. He groped for the edge of the table, would not scream. Neck flexed back, hard, unable to close his mouth – it was hard, hard! – he struggled and butted his head against the hard surface and would not scream.
"Put something under his head, Nurse, he's battering it on the table."
The digging of hands into the meat of arm and groin and thigh accelerated and then halted. It began again slowly. Slowly. Digging, pulling, coming apart. Being born must be like this, a helpless nauseous struggle to get out in the overwhelming smell of blood – a butcher-shop smell – pain jagged immeasurably high in it.
He would break. If he pushed through he would break into aborted flesh, and die if he didn't.
"Hold him down!"
Then someone forcibly pried his right hand from the side of the table and clutched it.
Bora could weep for the comfort that came with the hold, as if the act were his midwifery from death, delivering him from the mandible and womb of death. He stopped fighting, and was suddenly coming out of the vice.
Lights blinded him, he saw blood quilting his stretched-out body and people working into the naked red quilt with shiny tools, wads of cotton.
Out, out. He was coming out.
The clasp wrested him to a threshold of agony, brought him forth, and pain was extreme, unbearable at the passage. Bora cried out only once, when birth from pain tore what remained of his left hand with it.
In the morning, the sky was the battered colour of a bruise. The tall hospital window was made sad and livid by it, and in that bruised light Bora asked, unflinching, "Will there have to be a graft, or was there enough skin left?"
"We were able to repair it with what skin there was, Major. We tried to shield the stump and remove enough nervous terminations so that it will not hurt too much later. I am very sorry."
Bora looked away from the surgeon.
"What about my leg?"
"If gangrene doesn't develop, we hope to save it."
Suddenly Bora felt the need to vomit. Only it had nothing to do with anaesthesia this time, nor with pain. He said he understood, but would not look at his left arm.
The Italian surgeon, who was high-ranking and old enough to speak his mind to a German officer, shook his head. "It didn't help matters that you waited two hours to be evacuated."
"My wounded men came first. I lost two of them as it is."
"You lost three. Anyway, since you must be wondering, the metal fragments in your groin have not injured the genitals."
"I see." Bora did not look up, staring at an indeterminate place on the bed. "Thank you."
The wretched odour of disinfectant and blood filled the room. His body smelled of them. "My wedding ring, where is it?"
Beyond the bed, everything was a livid off-white colour. The window had a veined marble sill, like mottled flesh. Small cracks in the wall beneath it drew the eyeless, approximate profile of a horse.
"Will you accept something for the pain?"
Martin Bora moved his head from side to side on the pillow, but was too weak to say that he wouldn't.
Lago, 18.5 miles north-east of Verona 21 November 1943
Two months later, when he opened his eyes in the dark, Bora found himself holding his breath. Thinking, he went up and down his limbs, checking with hesitation the usually aching areas of left arm and leg – regions in the dark, uncertain of boundaries as even one's body is when awakening.
It was seldom that he had no pain, and the grateful lassitude, derived from feeling nothing, had become a luxury in the past few months. Face up in bed, he avoided any motion that might endanger the precious, transitory balance, though not feeling was far from feeling well. It would be so, it would have to be so until his body forgave him for what had happened in September.
The grenade attack had been unavoidable, but his flesh rejected it, and the truth of mutilation. He was still ashamed for helplessly lying on the butcher block of the emergency table, sewn in his wounds and bloodied as at birth for the length of his limbs, whose ordure a Sister of Charity sponged. The mortified nakedness of chest and belly and thighs and groin under the patient wipe of her virgin hands stayed with him. Forgiveness to himself would not come from simply surviving the agony of it as a wide-eyed animal, without crying out.
So Bora woke holding his breath so as not to rouse pain, while outside of the room – outside the command post – the wind rode high and pushed ahead a moon thin as an eyebrow.
By seven o'clock that morning, a keen, colder gale had blustered out of the north to empty the streets of Lago, a small town like many others, without a lake despite its name, lost in the fields of the Veneto region. Bora sat in his office minding paperwork, with an ear to the hum of vibrating telephone wires outdoors. He heard, too, the idling and then stopping of a motor car before the command, but had no curiosity to reach the window and find out who it was.
Even when the orderly came to knock on his door, he did not stop writing.
"Yes, what?" he limited himself to saying. After being told of the visitor, he added, "All right, let him in."
The newcomer was dark and wiry, with vivacious black eyes and a moustache like a caterpillar lining his upper lip. The sombre Fascist Republican Party mixture of field-grey and black formed a light-absorbing stain in the dim autumn day. Skulls and bundles of rods on the epaulets identified him as a member of the shock troops.
"Viva il Duce."
Bora did not return the Fascist salute, and stared up in a noncommittal way from his chair. He set his face inexpressively enough, while "How can I assist you?" rolled out of him flatly.
"Centurion Gaetano De Rosa, of the Muti Battalion."
The visitor spoke in the manner of training camp, projecting his voice across the office.
"Major Martin Bora of the Wehrmacht," Bora replied. And it took him aback that the little man addressed him in German next, in good German, with a pompous, self-conscious ring to the use of tenses as he introduced his reason for being there.
It had to do with a murder, so at first Bora listened, sitting back in the chair with his left arm low and his right hand calmly fingering a fountain pen over the shiny desktop.
"Why don't you speak Italian?" he asked then, in Italian.
"Why? Well, Major, I thought—"
"There's no need for you to go through any such effort. As you can see, I speak Italian too."
It was obvious that De Rosa was disappointed. Bora knew well enough these Fascists moonstruck with all things Germanic, who patterned themselves after his own people to the extent of sounding obnoxiously servile. He had learned to cut short all attempts to favour him with familiarity with German customs and places. And now he went straight to the core of the matter.
"I appreciate your coming to me, Centurion De Rosa, but I don't see how or even why I should offer assistance. The violent death of a Party notable is serious business. Your Verona police will be much better qualified than myself to conduct the investigation."
De Rosa was not easily outdone this time. "I thought you might answer that way, Major. That's why I brought this along. Please read." He handed an envelope to Bora, who sliced through its side with a penknife and began reading. Against the light from the window, De Rosa seemed to glow with pleasure at the sight of the letterhead, the squarish spread eagle of the German Headquarters in Verona.
There was little arguing with the brief of presentation. Bora put the sheet down, glaring at the little man, and prepared himself to listen.
Twenty minutes down the road from Lago, the few houses of Sagràte were buffeted by the pitiless wind. The naked bushes rattled like tambourines when Police Inspector Guidi got out of his old Fiat service car.
Corporal Turco hastened to reach the door of the police command ahead of him, opened it, stepped aside and let him in. He had the encumbering figure of a Saracen-blooded Sicilian, and when he joined Guidi inside, a wild whiff of clothes worn outdoors came with him.
"Arsalarma," he let out in his dialect. "With one shoe missing, Inspector, he can't have gone far."
Guidi did not bother to turn around. He removed from around his neck the bulky scarf his mother had hand-knit for him. "Why, Turco, haven't you ever walked barefoot?"
There wasn't much else for Turco to say, since his first footwear had come with his induction into the army. He brought to Guidi's desk the laceless, worn shoe they had just recovered, careful to place a newspaper under it before laying it down.
"Without a shoe, and crazy, too," he mumbled to himself. "Marasantissima."
Guidi had started pencilling lines on a topographic map tacked to his office wall. In a wide semicircle that began and ended at the river, fanning out from its right bank, he enclosed the stretch of flat countryside they had searched the night before. It seemed much larger when one had to slog across it, he thought.
Past the river, long and narrow fields, now mostly bare, ran to the guerrilla-torn piedmont, home to partisan bands. Guidi knew there were no farmhouses there to offer shelter to a fugitive – only fields, and irrigation canals bordering them and intersecting with deep ditches alongside endless hedgerows. His instinct told him he should continue to search this side of the river. Guidi marked with a dot the place where the shoe had been found, nearly halfway between Lago and Sagràte, where groves of willow trees flanked the county road.
"Let's give the men a chance to rest until tomorrow," he told Turco. "Then we'll see what else can be done. The carabinieri assured me they'll continue the search on their own until sundown." Guidi nearly laughed saying it, because Turco (who was far from daft, but loved theatrics) stared at the muddy shoe as though he could stare it into giving information.
As for Bora, he sighed deeply to conceal his boredom at De Rosa's narrative. Because the talk gave no sign of ending, "Colonel Habermehl is surely aware that I'm very busy," Bora interjected at last. "I have no free time."
In front of him, Habermehl's letter agreed that it was all a bother, but advised him to please the Verona Fascists. Bora knew the arguments by heart: this was northern Italy, four years into the war, and the Italian allies had become potential enemies. The Americans had landed in Salerno and were inching up the peninsula. Why not please the Verona Fascists, who remained pro-German? Habermehl asked "as a family friend, not out of rank". But the rank was there, of course, and Bora knew better than to fall for the outward courtesy.
"Look," he told De Rosa. "If you wish me to get involved in this case, you must supply me with all information gathered by the Italian police and carabinieri to date. When did the murder take place?"
De Rosa frowned. "Day before yesterday. Didn't you read it in the Arena? It was the most important piece of news, it took up nearly the whole front page."
Bora had spent all day Friday at the hospital in Verona, where the surgeon was still extracting shrapnel from his left leg. He'd had neither the time nor the inclination to read the Italian newspapers. "I must not have paid attention," he said.
Promptly De Rosa pulled out a newspaper clipping, laying it square on the desk in front of Bora.
Bora read. "Here it says that Camerata Vittorio Lisi was the victim of a stroke in his country villa."
"Well." De Rosa gave him an unamused smile, a grimace really. "You understand that when it comes to a man of Lisi's fame and valour, the public must be kept from scandals. Lisi was from Verona. All knew him, all loved him."
"All but one person at least, if he's been done in." Bora gave back the clipping, which De Rosa carefully folded again but left on the desk. "What chances are there that it was a political assassination?"
"None, Major Bora. Lisi was not a controversial man. Solid, with a heart of gold."
"I'm not aware that partisans or political adversaries would be impressed by a Fascist's golden heart."
De Rosa's grimace caused the well-combed caterpillar on his upper lip to tremble. "With all respect, Major, I know the political climate of the region better than you do. I assure you it is Fascistissimo."
Bora was tempted to phone Habermehl with an excuse to avoid the incestuous little world of local politics. His urge might have been visible, because De Rosa spoke up.
"Colonel Habermehl informs me that you have already solved difficult cases."
"By accident." Bora minimized the report. "Always by accident."
"Not according to the colonel. He says you distinguished yourself in the case of a murder in Spain, and of a dead nun in Poland. And in Russia ..."
The silvery skulls on De Rosa's uniform glinted dully. The angry eagle clutching a fascio on his chest pocket, and the fanaticism it stood for, was beginning to annoy Bora. He said, "All right. Tell me all that is known about Lisi's death, and provide me with the dossier as soon as possible."
"May I at least sit down?" De Rosa asked tartly.
On that Sunday, Guidi's mother was shelling peas into a colander set on her knees, rolling them out of their green casing with swift, hooked strokes of the thumb. These were the last peas of the season; it was amazing how they'd managed to ripen despite the cold nights. But how well they went with pasta sauce, and how Sandro liked them!
Near the kitchen door, she could now barely make out the voices of the men talking in the parlour. Her son had a soft voice as it was. Only a few of the words he spoke to the German were comprehensible to her, and as for the German, he was even more controlled in his speech. Signora Guidi was curious, but sat shelling peas with the offended dignity of the excluded.
Bora was saying, "No, thank you, I'm in a hurry."
Having refused to take a seat, he stood rigidly by the set dining-room table, opposite a mirrored credenza. On the credenza sat the black-ribboned photograph of Guidi's policeman father, with the date 1924 penned at the bottom, preceded by a cross.
Excerpted from LIAR MOON by Ben Pastor Copyright © 2001 by Ben Pastor . Excerpted by permission of BITTER LEMON PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
One of crime fiction’s more unusual protagonists is Baron Martin Bora, a German Army Major during World War II. In a previous [debut] novel, “Lumen,” Bora served in Spain, Poland and at Stalingrad, where he gained some distinction for solving a murder. This novel takes place in 1943 just as the Italian government switched sides, but the Nazi troops still controlled the north. As the novel opens, Bora is in a hospital after his troops were attacked by partisans; he loses his left hand and shrapnel is embedded in his leg, leaving him in pain for the rest of the book. Parenthetically, this reader wondered how he was not sent home after being so badly injured. In any event, when he returns to his duties, his superior foists on him an investigation into the murder of a fascist leader. His inquiries take place in conjunction with those of a local inspector, who in turn is seeking a serial killer. While the description of the investigation and activities against the partisans are skillfully drawn, more important is the author’s portrayal of the individual characters, especially Bora, who apparently scrupulously undermines efforts to transport Jews to concentration camps. To say the least, the characters are quite original, Bora a droll creation, highly intelligent. Recommended.
“Liar Moon” is the second book in the Martin Bora series. Bora is a Wehrmacht Major who two months after surviving a grenade attack in which he lost his left hand and nearly his leg, is back to work and tasked to investigate the murder of Camerata Vittorio Lisi, a well known Fascist and cripple. The Wehrmacht has zeroed in on Lisi’s very young widow Claretta as the prime suspect and with the help of Police Inspector Sandro Guidi, Bora must find evidence to either convict Claretta or find the true killer. Lisi—as it turns out—was a womanizer preying on his servant girls and the wives of other men. As a result, he had amassed a long list of enemies that included the recipients of large high interest loans. Bora and Guidi are not only working on the Lisi case but are combined in their effort to catch a serial killer amongst the raging war between Italy and Germany. The serial killer has a calling card of sorts: he leaves shoes as clues and walks away barefoot from the scene. Working the parallel cases, the men follow up on leads that take them from underground abortion clinics to the fields of Verona chasing the elusive serial killer. Both men have their demons to contend with, Bora from his opposition to the SS and their policies toward the treatment of Jews and Guidi with his ever growing feelings for Claretta who has now been jailed for the murder of her husband. They must put aside their personal demons and focus on the cases, which inevitably throw them into dangerous situations and chases to catch the killers. Ben Pastor is the author of several very successful novels. She has won the prestigious Premio Zagaroza for the best historical fiction and is considered one of the top in her field. The second of the series has the reader engaged, following the lives of the very believable characters and hoping Pastor will continue the series. Reviewed by Jodi Ann Hanson for Suspense Magazine
Like 'Lumen', featuring the same detective (german officer Martin Bora), 'Liar Moon' is a perfect blend of mystery, historical reconstruction (northern Italy, 1943) and psychological novel. Not only an evocative mystery but also a deep tale about life, death, human justice, hope and compassion during a terrible war time. Ben Pastor is a writer with a refined art. In 'Liar Moon' the reader can pick may echoes of Graham Greene and Yuko Mishima. A strong poetical light shines in the pages (right words, right phrases, a great mood, a style like an inner mounting flame), and the plot is strong, unforeseeable and touching. I think is novel is close to masterpiece. Really a great surprise. Thank you, miss Pastor.