Source: Review copy
Publication: 25TH October 2018 from No Exit Press
Autumn 1915. The First World War is raging across Europe. Woodrow Wilson has kept Americans out of the trenches, although that hasn’t stopped young men and women from crossing the Atlantic to volunteer at the front. Christopher Marlowe ‘Kit’ Cobb, a Chicago reporter and undercover agent for the US government is in Paris when he meets an enigmatic nurse called Louise. Officially in the city for a story about American ambulance drivers, Cobb is grateful for the opportunity to get to know her but soon his intelligence handler, James Polk Trask, extends his mission.
Let me start by saying how much I enjoyed this really very well written historical espionage thriller by Robert Olen Butler. The more books I read from No Exit Press, the more impressed I am by their selection of extremely good writers, whatever the genre.
I hadn’t read any of Robert Olen Butler’s previous Kit Cobb books, but that was no barrier to 100% enjoyment of this one, the 4th in his series, which works just fine as a stand-alone novel.
Butler takes us to Paris in 1915 where our protagonist, Kit Cob, a Chicago reporter, sets the scene in a Paris café whilst chatting to the waiter about his evening and partaking of a ‘bijou’ – a connoisseur’s cocktail of gin, chartreuse and sweet vermouth.
The United States has not yet entered the war, thanks to President Woodrow Wilson, but many Americans have travelled under their own steam to volunteer in the European war effort. Kit Cobb is a war correspondent who doubles, sometimes under pressure, as a spy for US Government Intelligence.
Ostensibly in Paris to report on the war, but being somewhat hindered from visiting the front line by the French Government, Cobb hits on a piece covering the role of some US citizens who are volunteering as Ambulance Drivers for the American Hospital, La Chapelle, in Paris.
At the same time, he is deeply concerned by a campaign of civilian bombing thought by the French authorities to be coming from German saboteurs aimed at undermining morale in the country.
Working together, the French and US agencies are seeking intelligence about these bombings and the perpetrators. James Polk Trask, Cobb’s spymaster, tasks Cobb as a fluent German speaker, with the job of tracking down a lead from the French.
I was hugely impressed by the sense of place and time with which this novel is imbued. Detailed research has created an impeccably authentic atmosphere of the First World War Paris and the political climate that prevailed.
Cobb follows a dangerous and tricky path among German refugees in his search for the saboteurs and though he reckons he knows what he’s doing, his intelligence isn’t all it might be and he strays a bit off the right path.
When he finally does come to understand who is responsible for the bombings and deaths of so many innocent civilians, he is both horrified and outraged.
An American nurse, Louise Pickering, provides some romantic time out, though he can never be just himself with anyone in this city where the dead are returned to be buried under cover of darkness.
This is first rate prose which beautifully conveys the sights and sounds of WW1 Paris and the whole sense of a city embroiled in an overt and covert war is beautifully captured. There is tension and excitement, too as the pace builds up to a rousing crescendo in the Paris catacombs.
This is so timely a novel, too, coming as it does on the 100th anniversary of the Armistice. What would those American soldiers think of their President’s inability to honour them because it was raining, I wonder?
Verdict: A beautifully written, well plotted and engrossing spy novel which makes first World War Paris come to life.
About Robert Olen Butler
Robert Olen Butler is one of America’s most highly regarded writers, having published 17 novels, 6 short story collections, and a book on the creative process. Among his numerous awards is the Pulitzer Prize which he won for A Good Scent for a Strange Mountain. Four of his novels are historical espionage thrillers in the Christopher Marlowe Cobb series, a character far closer to Robert than any other he has written. Like ‘Kit’ Cobb, Robert also went to war, was part of the military intelligence and a reporter and editor at an investigative business newspaper. Robert is also a widely admired and sought after university teacher of creative writing and counts among his former students another Pulitzer Prize winner.