Friday, May 11, 2012

Review of Lumen by Ben Pastor (1999/2011, Bitter Lemon Press)

October 1939 and Captain Martin Bora of Wehrmacht Intelligence has taken up lodgings in Cracow, sharing with the boorish womaniser, Major Retz.  He’s charged with gathering information and suppressing Polish resistance.  Within a couple of days of arriving, Mother Kazimierza, the abbess of the city convent, is shot dead.  The abbess has a devoted following given her apparent ability to see future events and her death has the potential to provide a locus for insurection.  Bora is given the task of investigating her death and to prove it wasn’t the Germans who killed her.  Father Malecki, a Chicago Pollak, is already investigating the abbess’ powers for the Vatican.  With her death, he’s instructed to stay and assist the investigation into her killing.  Bora and Malecki form an uneasy alliance, pushing against the regimes of the Church and occupying state for answers.  Retz meanwhile has taken up with an old flame and other women, regularly instructing Bora to stay away from his lodgings until the early hours.  As the weeks unfold, Bora’s becomes increasingly disillusioned with the Nazi regimes actions in Poland and with his own life.  Then Retz is found dead having seemingly committing suicide, providing Bora with a fresh mystery. 

Lumen is a competently written police procedural, well contextualised within the opening few months of the Second World War.  It is effectively a coming of age tale.  Bora is from a wealthy, well-positioned Prussian family.  Whilst he has little sympathy for the Polish, prepared to harass them and kill their livestock, he has a sense of morality that stops well short of open murder.  As time moves on, he comes to see the Nazi regime for what it is and struggles to challenge the actions of his comrades, whilst being mindful of his own position and career.  He also comes to understand his own domestic situation.  In both cases, his sense of loyalty and conviction is severely eroded, but held in place by his sense of honour and pride.  The prose and plot are very measured, with the story unfolding at an even pace that downplays melodrama.  This makes the story seem slow at the start, but works effectively across the novel to expose the everyday torments that Bora, Malecki and the Polish population face.  The characterisation is understated, but nicely done, revealed through actions not description.  In general, the plot is well structured and engaging, with the three main strands (the abbess death; Retz and his domestic life; Nazi actions in Poland) nicely intersecting, but the mystery elements were a bit more ponderous.  I knew the identity of the killer from very early on, even though I was wrong about the reason, and its resolution seemed a little clunky.  The second case was all circumstantial evidence and supposition, which appeared realistic, but only to internally resolve the death, not to act on.  These were not major issues, to be honest, and Lumen is an enjoyable, thought-provoking read.  


Maxine Clarke said...

Nice review. This one seems to be picking up a lot of good reviews, must try to find time to read it. Bitter Lemon are usually well worth reading.

Anonymous said...

Rob - Thanks for the fine review. I've been reading some good press about this myself and I think I'm going to put it on my TBR.