The Star of Istanbul, out this month, is the second book in a trilogy of thrillers by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler starring daring war correspondent Christopher Marlowe (Kit) Cobb. Cobb is a man who’d do anything to get to the bottom of a good and true story for the Chicago Post-Express.
The first of the series, The Hot Country, published in 2012, finds Kit Cobb in Vera Cruz in 1914 covering the U.S. occupation. President Wilson has ordered the action upon learning of a shipment of weapons on its way there aboard a German ship. Looking for an exclusive story, Cobb ends up tracking a German spy to the camp of Pancho Villa. He’s so good that the U.S. government convinces him to spy for them while still covering stories for his newspaper.
The Star of Istanbul opens one year later with Cobb boarding the Lusitania, while World War I is raging in Europe. He’s on the trail of another German spy, who is believed to have valuable information about the war. On board he meets and falls for Selene Bourgani, a beautiful silent film star with a mysterious background, who may also be working for German Intelligence. When a German U-boat attacks the Liverpool, England-bound Lusitania off the coast of Ireland, Cobb saves Bourgani. They are among the 760 passengers who survive.
He then follows the spy Walter Brauer and Bourgani to the dark streets and alleys of London, where he encounters some sinister characters, as well as one nicknamed Der Wolf, and finally to exotic and dangerous Istanbul for the final showdown. Along the way, he unravels the secrets of Bourgani’s life – and romances her.
In Cobb, Butler has created an appealing hero, who is a clever and handsome man with an eye for the ladies. They also have an eye for him. He’s a talented writer who always has his Corona Portable Number 3 near at hand. He can fight and shoot, and, thanks to his actress mother, he’s good at disguises and accents. It also helps that he can speak a few languages. He’s a skillful lock picker (he carries his own tools), and he’s generally fearless, though careful. Like I said, he’s clever.
Butler’s description of the sinking of the Lusitania is exceptional. I felt as if I were there watching the terror of the people trying to get off the quickly sinking ship. The bow struck the seabed just 18 minutes after the torpedo struck. The crew managed to get only six of 48 lifeboats successfully launched because of the ship’s severe list. Butler realistically captures the continuous devastation as the Lusitania goes through its death throes and illuminates the workings of Cobb’s mind as tries to find a way off the ship for him and Bourgani.
But the descriptions, never intrusive, are first-hand with Cobb telling the story. The fight scenes read quickly and almost breathlessly. In The Hot Country, the fight scenes tended to be long sentences with lots and lots of ands. Butler doesn’t do that in this new book.
I heard Butler speak at the Decatur Book Festival over the Labor Day weekend. He said he’s working 14-hour days now to finish the third book, scheduled for publication next October, for Grove Atlantic’s The Mysterious Press. Most of those 14 hours are spent on research done on the Internet, he said. He described an example. He wanted to use a Do Not Disturb sign in The Star of Istanbul but wasn’t sure they existed in 1915. He googled do not disturb signs and within seconds found his answer. They did exist.
Butler, who won the Pulitzer for A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, has written 14 novels and six short story collections. The Washington Post named The Hot Country a Best Book of the Year. He teaches creative writing at Florida State University.