- Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
A year has passed in the eventful life of Christopher Marlowe “Kit” Cobb, foreign correspondent and spy and a marvelous creation of author Robert Olen Butler.
We last saw Kit Cobb in Mexico in 1914, keeping his eye on German spies in Butler’s debut Kit Cobb thriller, “The Hot Country” (for my Oct. 1, 2012 review: http://www.huntingtonnews.net/45469). In Butler’s followup historical thriller “The Star of Istanbul” (The Mysterious Press, 368 pages, $25.00) we learn that Kit’s Chicago paper finally decides to sent him to cover the war in Europe, which has been going on for almost a year in the spring of 1915.
The war — soon to be called the Great War, and much later World War I — is in full swing. Germany, along with Austria-Hungary, the main opponents of the British, French and Russians, has allied itself with the Ottoman empire, persuading Turkey to join the “Central Powers” and declare war on the British empire. As we know now, the decision of the Ottomans (Turks) turns out to be a disaster of the highest order, as anyone knows who has seen the movie “Lawrence of Arabia” or possesses even a little knowledge of the history of the Middle East).
The Germans and the Austrians also want Italy to join their side, but the Italians haven’t made up their minds (when they do in this war, they decide to go with the Allies).
U.S. President Woodrow Wilson — so willing to invade Mexico in “The Hot Country” — is reluctant to commit American boots on the ground to the European war.
Wilson’s administration, which is overwhelmingly on the side of the Allies, wants more intelligence on what’s going on in Europe and the Middle East. A former college professor and president of Princeton University, Wilson assigns James P. Trask, his man in charge of covert affairs, to persuade Christopher Marlowe Cobb to follow a man named Walter Brauer, a German-American intellectual who may be a spy for the German Empire.
Brauer is sailing from New York to England on the R.M.S. Lusitania, a British luxury liner built in 1904, so Kit Cobb books passage on the ship. The Germans have taken out ads in American newspapers warning of the dangers of sailing into a war zone, but the owners of the Lusitania say it can outrun any Kraut U-Boat.Aboard the Lusitania on what turns out to be its last voyage, Cobb falls in love (or lust) with actress Selene Bourgani, an international star of the silent movies of the era, who appears to be working with German Intelligence. Selene asks if Cobb is related to the famous actress Isabel Cobb and Kit acknowledges that she was his mother, naming him after Christopher Marlowe, the brilliant playwright who was a contemporary of Shakespeare.
Selene’s activities are much more complicated than Cobb can imagine (spoiler alert) as Cobb learns later in Turkey, but first he has to survive the infamous May 7, 1915 U-Boat attack on the Lusitania (of the 1,959 people on board, 1,198 died) after the ship was torpedoed by the German submarine U-20 off the coast of Ireland.
Cobb follows Selene and Brauer into the alleyways of London, crossing into Germany, where Cobb’s proficiency with the German language is vital, then on to Istanbul, in 1915 the capital of the Ottoman Empire.
He must use all the cunning he possesses– and he’s a cunning fellow — to uncover Selene’s true motives — and even her real name and ancestry — only to realize her hidden agenda could bring down some of the world’s most powerful leaders. Equipped with his Mauser pistol and his Corona 3 typewriter (the same brand Ernest Hemingway used in the 1920s and Cobb’s typewriter of choice in “The Hot Country”) he must venture deep behind enemy lines.
“The Star of Instanbul” is a worthy sequel to “The Hot Country” and readers who hunger for historical accuracy will be amply rewarded when they read this outstanding work of historical fiction.