Journalist and spy extraordinaire Kit Cobb is at it again in Robert Olen Butler’s latest novel, The Empire of Night.
Recently published by The Mysterious Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, the thriller shows Christopher Marlowe Cobb and his mother, renowned stage actress Isabel Cobb, joining forces to help England find out who is behind the successful Zeppelin nightly bomb attacks on London. World War I is in full swing in 1915 Europe, while President Wilson is still keeping America out of the war, despite the German U-boat attack on the Lusitania, which Butler skillfully portrayed in his previous novel The Star of Istanbul, the second book in his Kit Cobb series.
Cobb, a Chicago war correspondent recruited by American intelligence for dangerous overseas missions, proved himself a clever spy in this earlier novel, and now he’s a full-blown secret agent. His famous mother, starring in a touring production of Hamlet as the brooding prince himself, also is recruited to spy on suspected British government mole Sir Albert Stockman, a Member of Parliament and a German by blood. Thanks to 300 years of German influence on England dating back to German-born George I, not to mention Queen Victoria’s German-born Prince Albert, there are plenty of Germans in high places in England. As American Secret Service agent James Trask says to Cobb, “For Christ’s sake, the Kaiser himself is Victoria’s grandson.”
Cobb poses as American journalist and German apologist Joseph Hunter doing a feature on Isabel, and his mother uses her beauty and acting talent on Stockman, who is a devoted fan of hers. Mother and son end up in Berlin with Stockman as Cobb tries to figure out what he is up to and what his involvement with the Zeppelin killing machines is.
As usual, Butler immerses us in the time period. Berlin 1915 is brought to life as Cobb, always armed with a Mauser or Luger, shoehorns his way into Stockman’s life, gaining the aristocrat’s trust using fluent German, an astute knowledge of German customs, and even a facial scar resulting from a sword stroke (his honorable Schmiss), which Cobb tells Stockman he got at school in Heidelberg. Those of us who read the first Kit Cobb book, The Hot Country, know how he really got it
Butler’s in-depth description of a Zeppelin is spot on – at least, as far as I can tell, never having been in one. But I felt as if I had been in one –the noise, the smells, the interior and exterior details, the lift of it as the Zeppelin rises into the air. Butler’s continuous pressure on the suspense makes the novel a page-turning, nail-biting experience, and his use of short, crisp sentences magnifies the tension.
According to the publisher, there will be more Christopher Marlow Cobb books in the future, but Butler is taking a year off to work on another writing project.
Butler, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, has written 21 books, including a book on the creative process, From Where You Dream. He also has twice won a National Magazine Award in Fiction and received the 2013 F. Scott Fitzgerald Award for Outstanding Achievement in American Literature. He teaches creative writing at Florida State University.
Do you enjoy reading war-time novels? What is intriguing about them?
Enjoyed your article, Brenda, and look forward to reading Butler’s first book in the series. In my 20’s I discovered Leon Uris, and “Mila 18” is still one of my favorite war novels. I am not much of a nonfiction reader, so I get my sense of history from fictional war stories.
I discovered Leon Uris in my 20’s, too, and read all of his books, including “Mila 18”. Loved it.
I have just bought The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan, winner of the Booker this year. It’s about Australian POWs held by the Japanese. I heard him speak at the Decatur Book Festival this past Labor Day and wish I’d bought the book then to get him to sign it. I might have to go back and review Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, which I read years ago.
War-time books I have read within this last year and loved are Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds and (most particularly) Chang-Rae Lee’s The Surrendered. And then there’s The Ghost Road trilogy by Pat Barker, which Claudia Fedarko reviewed for this blog a year ago. All terrific. I suppose one of war’s few benefits is pushing people to their limits to test their mettle.