Every year particularly around the D-Day anniversary in June and Armistice in November, hundreds of friends and relatives and remaining few survivors make the pilgrimage to the world war battle field sites scattered across northern France and Belgium. I know friends who have done it, but it’s something I’ve never done and would like to do, especially the to the Civil War battle sites in America. One thing you never hear about though, is people going to visit the Spanish Civil War battle sites ( apart from probably the Spanish of course). Although a quick google does bring up guided tours of their sites. It’s strange I haven’t heard more about the Spanish Civil War, especially in Ireland, considering the couple of thousand Irish men who went over to fight on both sides of the war. This month’s second book review and blog tour is set during the Spanish Civil War, it’s The Horseman’s Song by Ben Pastor and published by Bitter Lemon Press (www.bitterlemonpress.com) on the 14th February.
Spain 1937, in the midst of the bloody Spanish Civil we find German Officer and Detective, Martin Von Bora assigned to the Sierras of Aragon in South Western Spain. Where he’s fighting with the Spanish Foreign Legion. There he discovers the body of Federico Garcia Lorca , the brilliant Spanish poet and playwright, as he begins what will be a perilous investigation into the murder, he discovers Walton his opposite number in the International Brigades is also looking into Lorca’s death, as he was a friend of the victim. Soon Bora and Walton join forces and their joint investigation culminates in a thrilling chase after writers killer.
This is the sixth novel in Ben Pastor’s historical detective series featuring Martin Von Bora but my first occasion to make his acquaintance. Researching the other novels prior to writing this I was surprised to find that this is a prequel, being set during the Spanish Civil War. Reading the book, I was intrigued to wonder how Pastor would continue the series, with Von Bora, A Wehrmacht Officer, as a sympathetic lead character as he progressed into the era of World War Two. I anticipated waiting for the next novel to be released but it seems I just need to return to the first and read on from there.
I found this an engrossing read. It is certainly a slow burn. Pastor is known for her accurate wartime settings and this is the case here. However, she doesn’t give us an overall history lesson. She focuses attention on one death and on the lives of two groups of antagonists. The opposing forces occupying two elevated positions above the sierra. They spend their time surviving the heat, deprivation and boredom while they await news of the next offensive. Von Bora himself , has just taken command of the nationalist post after the previous lieutenant was shot. He is a German officer, taking orders from the Nationalist army but carrying out his own intelligence gathering for his German superiors. His counterpart on the Internationalist post is Phillip (Felipe) Walton, who is an American volunteer. Felipe has survived world war one but was unable to settle back into civilian life and left his life and marriage to fight in the Spanish civil war, bringing his secrets and fears along.
Two things emerge to unite Walton’s and Von Bora’s interest and energies. The body of Frederico Garcia Lorca, a famous poet discovered in the valley between the two camps. This is one point when Pastor strays from fact. No one is sure what happened to Lorca. The history books tell us he was shot by Franco’s troops at the beginning of the Civil War but no one knows where his body is buried. Pastor has created her own fictional account of his death within these pages, cleverly referring to false rumours of his earlier demise.
When Von Bora comes across the body and is immediately interested in how the unknown man died. He reports on the body to his Colonel, who recognises the identity of the victim from Von Bora’s description and tries to keep it a secret, but when they go to fetch the body it is gone, removed by the Internationalists. Both sides immediately blame the other and a long game of cat and mouse ensues with the body being moved and reinterred and each man making his own investigation. For some it is a matter of personal sorrow, for others propaganda and for Von Bora a puzzle to be solved.
The second character is a Bruja or witch who lives alone at the top of a neighbouring craggy peak. Both Walton and Von Bora visit her. She enchants them with her free spirit and mystical approach and with her lovemaking skills. The character seems surreal and you are left wondering if she is a figment of their imaginations. There is a great deal of philosophical discussion in the book. I like things a bit more literal and less deep I’m afraid, but I wondered if she was meant to be a metaphor?
Ben Pastor (www.benpastor.com) is the pseudonym of Italian born American author Maria Verbena Volpi. After studying Archaeology in Rome, she moved to the United States to teach in the the Mid-West and Vermont. Her previous five Martin Bora Novels include: Lumen (1999); Liar Moon (2001); A Dark Song Of Blood (2002); Master of One Hundred Bones (2011). She’s also written a detective series centered around a Roman soldier in the fourth century and two books featuring a pair of detectives in Prague on the eve of world war one. She has written fourteen books to date, but this is the first time The Horseman’s Song has been published the UK. It was originally published in 2003.
The cover blurb talks about a thrilling chase to catch the killer. I didn’t find that in the story. What I did feel was a slow build of tension and heat. Like a kettle building to the boil. There was a lot of time when nothing really happened, but I still felt the tension increasing. I was looking forward to a great reveal and grand finale but despite the clever denouement and not seeing the answer in advance, I did feel a little disappointed after all my hard work reading this rather chunky tome. However, overall the reading experience was satisfying because of the excellent writing.
So if you love Historical fiction, then get down to your local bookshop or download a copy and get into the Martin Von Bora series. Not forgetting any of Pastors other historical mysteries.
Reviewed By Georgina Murphy
This book was reviewed as part of a Random Things Blog Tour, to see what the other reviewers thought, visit their blogs listed below. Then if you read this book, come back and leave a message telling us what you thought.