(Cracow, Poland, 1939)
The key figure in Ben Pastor’s excellent historical mystery LUMEN seems to be a murdered nun. Mother Matka Kazimierza was not just any nun. Known as the “Holy Abbess,” Kazimierza was considered a visionary who could supposedly predict the future. In early October, 1939 her body is found in a convent in Cracow, Poland by a German officer who was surreptitiously meeting with her as he tried to cope with the approaching death of his four year old son. The Germans were slowly wrapping up control of Cracow following their invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. In addition they were implementing joint occupation of the country, as per the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 26, 1939, as the Soviet Union had invaded Poland in mid-September to seize their half of the country. The German Commander, Lt. Colonel Emile Schenck appoints Captain Martin Bora to head up the investigation into the nun’s death.
LUMEN is the first in Pastor’s well received series of historical mysteries that take place during World War II that Capt. Bora, a well-educated Ph.D from the University of Leipzig, and veteran of the Spanish Civil War is the main character. For the investigation of the “Holy Abbess” Bora, a Jesuit himself must collaborate with Father John Malecki, an American priest from Chicago who had been sent by the Archbishop to study the phenomenon of Matka Kazimierza. Once she was murdered he was instructed to remain in Cracow and assist in the investigation with the German authorities.
(Nazis marching through Cracow, Poland during World War II – a city that made it through the war unscathed)
Bora faced a number of difficulties in dealing with the case. First, his roommate Major Richard Retz had a very productive love life that made Bora very uncomfortable as he was expected to stay away from their apartment for Retz’s liaisons. Second, were his personal values. Though only in Cracow for a short period of time he witnessed a number of things that more than troubled him. The use of Jewish slave labor; executions; beatings; revenge killings; rape; massacres; seizure of private property; enforcement of racial laws; and the destruction of books and documents from university libraries all went against his moral code. Third, he resented the constant lectures from his commander concerning what was expected of the pure blooded Aryan male – propagate the Reich for the next generation. Lastly, trying to work with Father Malecki whose loyalties and values seemed to conflict with his own. As the story evolves Bora’s moral confusion no longer controls him as he witnesses what Nazism has brought to Poland. Bora’s consciousness raising awareness stems from seeing Ukrainians hanged, and “Polack farmers” shot, and while some remained alive locked in a barn to be burned to death.
Pastor has an excellent grasp of historical events that are woven into her story. German-Russian distrust is on full display over boundaries and accusations that each side is engaging in atrocities. The action of the German SD, or secret police reflect everything Bora finds reprehensible about Nazi rule. The competition between the Wehrmacht and the SS for control of certain investigations, jurisdiction, and territorial oversight is analyzed carefully.
(Main Square, Cracow, Poland, 1948)
The core of the story involves why the “Holy Abbess” was murdered? Was it a result of her predictions for the future? Did she help the Polish underground? These questions factor into the investigation as does the Abbess’ predictions as to whether they were apocalyptic or political.
Pastor does a remarkable job developing her characters, particularly the relationship that grows between Bora and Father Malecki. The author also develops the characters of a number of Polish actresses, especially Ewa Kowalska and her daughter Helena Sokora who were both involved with Bora’s roommate. There are numerous other characters from the Polish Archbishop, SS Captain Salle-Weber, Lt. Colonel Nowotny, the German coroner, among others who greatly impact the plot.
Pastor’s novel is a combination of the Catholic faith, politics, ethics, as some are conflicted by events, while others seem to enjoy what ultimately will lead to the Holocaust and murder of countless Poles. Lumen (light) and darkness are in conflict with each other throughout the story and through Bora’s quest for truth the reader should have a satisfactory read. If you are a fan of Philip Kerr’s Bernie Guenther series you will especially enjoy Pastor’s work. I look forward to enjoying, LIAR MOON the next installment of the Martin Bora series.
(Cracow, Poland, during World War II)