BLOG TOUR: Paris in the Dark by Robert Olen Butler

Review published on November 9, 2018.

Welcome to the Nudge stop on the blog tour for Paris in the Dark by Robert Olen Butler!

Here’s a little info about the book:

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. Parisians are meeting ‘death by dynamite’ in a new campaign of bombings, and the German-speaking Kit seems just the man to discover who is behind this – possibly a German operative who has infiltrated with the waves of refugees? And so begins a pursuit that will test Kit Cobb, in all his roles, to the very limits of his principles, wits and talents for survival.

And a brief biography of 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.

Nudge’s own Paul Burke reviews Paris in the Dark:

Butler may be more famous for his contemporary fiction, but this brilliant series of spy novels deserves as much attention. Paris in the Dark may be the novel to get that recognition, it has all the energy and verve or the earlier books but also a maturity that makes it a genuinely rounded read. The same qualities that make Butler’s literary novels so good are present in his thrillers; they are stylish, insightful and this is great storytelling. Paris in the Dark is a sharp-edged, well-crafted spy story that has real depth of characterisation, a beautifully realised setting and a fizzing plot. It’s a page turner, packed with engrossing action and brief glimpses of love under fire. This story slots neatly into the framework of real events and brings us closer to a lesser known moment of history. So it’s fast and gripping but there is a lot more to this tale of war and spying than the usual fare. This is a grown up thriller, serious about war and it’s effects on the men and women caught up in the conflagration, exciting but also contemplative. Emotionally aware and alive with human experience and complex motivations; betrayal, bravery, patriotism, self-preservation and love.

I took to Kitt Cobb, journalist and part-time spy, early on in the first novel of this series, The Hot Country, a novel that explores America’s involvement in the Mexican Civil War and their duplicitous motives (it’s about oil and influence, hints of Vietnam and Iraq?). Cobb is a borderline drunk and he’s drawn to hopeless sexual encounters but he’s a smart man. An honest but flawed man, a character that would not be out of place at the centre of a Graham Greene novel. He has a formidable mother, who won’t say who his father is; she’s an actress, prone to melodrama, a libertine and sometime co-conspirator in Cobb’s adventures. His mother isn’t present in Paris in the Dark but she overhangs it nonetheless. There are plenty of cultural references in the Cobb novels and a subtle sense of literary humour. That includes taking the mickey out of himself, there’s a line in The Hot Country, where Christopher Marlowe Cobb lets it be known he is Kitt Cobb, he’s a journalist who despises the kind of pretentious writer who uses three names.

Butler is a Pulitzer Prize winner for his short story collection, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain (1993) and his Vietnam novel Perfume River is one of the best accounts of war and its consequences of recent times. The same intelligence, passion and themes infuse his spy fiction. This is fine writer, the Kitt Cobb series are genuinely original novels, Butler has carved himself a niche in a well-reported period and it’s clear that he understands the rigours of the thriller as well as any contemporary writer.

Kitt Cobb is an American in Paris, a war correspondent for a Chicago newspaper, currently on a break from the clandestine spying assignments for the United States Secret Service that have taken him to Mexico, Istanbul and London. This is 1915, the battle is closing in on the city, the situation for the French is becoming desperate. The British have yet to fully engage and the Americans under Wilson are resisting involvement. It’s a frustration for Cobb that he can’t get to the front and report on the fighting, French restrictions prohibit that. He’s come up with a plan, a story he can write about the American volunteer ambulance drivers, bringing the wounded and dead from the trenches. But for the moment he is drowning his sorrows with chartreuse in a cheap Parisian bar, a familiar watering hole. An explosion disturbs his morose mood. There’s smoke billowing from the Terminus Montparnasse Hôtel, rushing from the bar Cobb takes in the scene of carnage, It’s not an unfamiliar one for him, this is not his first war:

“A man’s naked arm, severed at the elbow, it’s hand with palm turned upward, its fingers splayed in the direction of the café, as if it were the master of ceremonies to this production of the Grand Guinol….”

The next morning he travels to the American Hospital based at the Lycée Pasteur, home to the volunteer doctors and nurses (mostly trainees/auxiliaries). They treat the wounded delivered by the young ambulance drivers. Cobb is guided through the wards by nurse Louise Pickering:

“On this morning, she still smelled of lilac water not, not yet of wound-drain and carbolic acid. Touching, really, given the professionally hardened look in her lovely large eyes, given her senior status in a rough trade, touching to me that she would splash this parlor-and-parasol smell onto her body before a day of wounds and death.”

Louise Pickering senses real concern in Cobb’s eyes, unlike many a journalist. It may have been all business between them but there is something beginning to stir – are these lost souls that have found each other? Cobb has the meat of the story he will write that night. But the next morning James Polk Trask, spymaster, turns up, inevitably, Cobb is back in the game. American interests want France to stay in the war. Trask thinks the sabotage against French civilians could help the German cause it has to be stopped. Cobb already has a legend as a German-American journalist, Josef Wilhelm Jäger, so they set him up with a French agent already undercover. Best guess the saboteurs are hiding among the refugees displaced by the fighting. Its not long before Cobb has a way in and a decent lead to follow. The problem is everyone is making assumptions, they may pay off, but meanwhile the bombers haven’t finished their campaign. Cobb cant resist Louise but his relationship with her puts her in grave danger too. There’s a subtle tug of war between Trask and his French counterpart for Cobb to deal with too.

Butler has a way of opening up history to the reader and delving into complex events without detracting or slowing the compelling drive of the narrative. He develops his stories around obscure incidents that illuminate the wider political picture but also reflect on the present. In all of the Cobb novels there are references to a “free press”, to the issue of censorship and that seem to me to be saying something about our world now. Butler understands the complex issues behind the story, the vacillating border between France and Germany, Alsace-Lorraine, that means there are French communities in Germany and German communities in France (known as the “The Goths”). Also the mass movement of people from Eastern France and Belgium trying to stay a step ahead of the fighting. We also learn a lot about the volunteer ambulance drivers and the nature of spying in a world of the hand cranked car chase – fascinating.

There’s less fist fighting than earlier novels and Cobb has has grown up a lot but there is plenty of action. Characters are rounded, Cobb has an arc that spans the four novels; he flawed, he makes mistakes, misjudges the situation but, fortunately, has the wherewithal to come through. Louise is beautiful and brave but she is nuanced, she’s damaged by her experience and this feels very real. She confides to Cobb: “…I am afraid these months and months of wrecked men, wrecked male bodies, the memory of them, the image of them, will forever spoil any intimacy having to do with a man’s body, even a healthy one. Particularly the ultimate intimacy. Especially when I have known men’s bodies only as I have.” This isn’t a James Bond coupling, the need between them is palpable in their relationship. These are very convincing voices.

Paris in the Dark is beautifully written, curt at times but also lyrical and there are insightful psychological passages. The dialogue is believable, it’s era appropriate language. The occasional sharp contrast between contemplative passages and abrupt reminders that this is a thriller set during a war add to the effect of the story. The lovers awake “…to the distant thump of a bomb.”

Kitt Cobb’s adventures haven’t enjoyed the popularity they deserve until now but this is literary crime fiction of rare quality, I expect this to change. This novel can be read as a standalone adventure but this is a series I would urge readers to seek out. I’ve already mentioned The Hot Country (2012), and there are two others in the series, The Star of Istanbul (2013) and The Empire of Night (2015). There are echoes of Greene and Hemingway to savour but most of all this is a damn good adventure story.

Paul Burke 5/5

Paris in the Dark by Robert Olen Butler
No Exit Press 9780857302458 hbk Oct 2018

Our thanks to Robert Olen Butler and Random Things Tours for inviting Nudge to participate in this blog tour!

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