Set in a period of peculiar stillness between cataclysmic WW2 battles, Tin Sky is a meticulous historical novel constructed around not one but two locked-room murder mysteries. Deeply scarred after barely surviving the horrors of Stalingrad, career Wehrmacht cavalry officer Martin Bora is assembling a new force in preparation for the coming conflict at Kursk. While he badgers and bargains for resources, men and horses, his talents as an interrogator are called for twice. Once to question a captured enemy officer. The second time, to assess the reliability of a remarkable Soviet defector who has crossed enemy lines – and one with whom Bora has a distant family connection. Yet before he can assess the bare intelligence they provide, both men die under bizarre circumstances. Bora must find out who – but more importantly, why. And the number of people he can trust in the Ukraine in 1943, riddled with Gestapo, SS, informers, deserters, partisans and conspirators, extends only to old comrades and close family.
Tin Sky is no rapid read, no rip-snorting thriller. It’s a painstakingly constructed and painfully credible representation of what life in Bora’s position might have been like. Fighting an immoral war, on the losing side. Full of desire for his young wife; beyond despair for his own life. Where Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther reacted to the Nazi regime with increasingly risky wise-ass cynicism, Bora is entirely different. He’s from an old family, well-bred, a man who typically operates within the system – although when brutally provoked and personally exposed he’s entirely capable of taking radical action which would see him shot in a heartbeat.
It pays to devote languid afternoons to savouring the story and the textural detail crammed into every chapter of Tin Sky. This isn’t a book to be skimmed in ten minute sessions when you’re tired. The author, Ben Pastor, weaves an intricate skein of narrative threads to form the final image which Bora uncovers and you need to pay attention to do her efforts justice. The experience is more than worth the effort – this is one of those few works of fiction which pulls the reader into its time and place, so you become immersed in the shattered landscape, alongside the tattered young men ready to continue their total war.
There are three earlier books in the Martin Bora series and, while Tin Sky was completely comprehensible read out of sequence, I recommend starting at the beginning with Lumen. Bora in 1943 must be a very different man to the investigator in 1939, and watching how war changes him would be as fascinating as the individual stories themselves.
If, like me, you’ve found Alan Furst’s recent WW2 stories to be less than satisfying compared to his outstanding earlier work, then discovering Ben Pastor should be a delight.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
Tin Sky by Ben Pastor is available in paperback and ebook