Thursday, January 22, 2015

Review of A Dark Song of Blood by Ben Pastor (Bitter Lemon Press, 2014; 2002 in Italian)

Rome in 1944 and the Allies are on the verge of starting their offensive to move up the leg of Italy.  Martin Bora is a major in Wehrmacht and an aide to General Westphal.  As well as undertaking his normal army duties, Bora is tasked with diplomatic relations with the Vatican, and investigating the murder of a German embassy secretary with the aid of Sandro Guidi, a local detective.  The job is made more difficult due to the interest of the local Gestapo and SS, and the desire of the local police chief to frame a political rival, and the actions of local partisans determined to disrupt operations and kill as many Germans as possible.  Bora has a doctorate in Catholic theology, is a battle hardened veteran of Poland and Russia, and is used to playing political games, but the byzantine tangle of lethal rivalries has even him floundering.  And whilst very different in nature, Bora and Guidi are driven by the desire to see justice administered before the city falls.

A Dark Song of Blood is the third book in the Martin Bora series translated into English.  My reviews of the first two can be found here and here.  As with the earlier books, the strength of the story is the character of Bora and the moral ambiguities of the tale.  Bora has aristocratic roots, is a committed military man who has served in Spain, Poland, Russia and Italy, and is strong willed, intelligent, principled and brave.  Although he knows he serves a corrupt regime he has a strong sense of duty and loyalty, but he’s no apologist for the German army.  He also abhors the Gestapo and SS and their work and methods, and hates the treatment of the Jews and will actively intervene on their behalf.  At the same time, he’s quite happy to see partisans executed, but not the ratio of reprisals.  The story unfolds over the first six months of 1944 and mostly focuses on Bora’s interactions with the local police, the Gestapo and SS, and the Church, with the murder investigation forming one thread amongst a number, being very slowly edged forward and at times almost disappearing entirely.  At one level, this is fine, as there is plenty happening, but another it left the plot a little rudderless at times.  And whilst Pastor keeps a number of possible suspects in the frame,  I found the denouement a little unsatisfying.  Overall, an interesting story centred on a fascinating character.

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