REVIEWED BY DAVID M. KINCHEN
It’s appropriate, given that this year is the centennial of the start of the Great War — later World War I — that newspaperman Christopher Marlowe Cobb continues to be a larger than life figure in the third entry in the Kit Marlowe historical novel series by Robert Olen Butler: “The Empire of Night” (Mysterious Press, 384 pages, $26.00).
In the first entry, “The Hot Country” Cobb is battling German agents and Mexican bandits early in 1914 to get the story for his Chicago newspaper. (For my Oct. 1, 2012 review of “The Hot Country”: http://www.huntingtonnews.net/45469).
In the second installment, “The Star of Istanbul” (For my oct. 11, 2013 review http://www.huntingtonnews.net/74338) Cobb survives the 1915 sinking of the British ocean liner, Lusitania, to continue his spying and news reporting. He packs a mean Corona 3 typewriter — not to mention his Mauser pocket pistol.
In “The Empire of Night” it’s well into 1915 and Kit is now more spy than newspaper correspondent (his cover) as he’s delegated by President Woodrow Wilson’s spymaster Trask to see what the British and the Germans are up to.
He’s working undercover in a castle on the coast of Kent, not far from the White Cliffs of Dover, trying to determine what the castle’s owner, Sir Albert Stockman is up to. Stockman, originally of German descent, may be a secret agent of the Kaiser. To his surprise, Kit discovers that his beautiful, 50-something mother, world renowned actress Isabel Cobb, has made another amorous conquest: Stockman.
Starring in a touring production of Hamlet — dressed as a man, playing Hamlet — Isabel’s offstage role is to keep tabs on the supposed mole, who’s not only an ardent fan of Shakespeare but a man in love. We have the intriguing spectacle of a mother-son spy team.
One evening, Isabel Cobb and Stockman leave the seaside castle, heading for Germany. The Germans are using zeppelins — like the LZ 129 Hindenburg (Luftschiff Zeppelin #129) that exploded in New Jersey on May 6, 1937 — to bomb London.
I won’t give away any more of the plot of this elegant thriller, other than to say that Kit Cobb, using the alias of Joseph Hunter, is using his foreign correspondent cover to spy on Stockman and the Germans. This means that Kit Cobb will have to follow Isabel and Albert to the German capital, Berlin.
Like the previous two Kit Cobb entries, “The Empire of Night” is a meticulously researched page-turner that will appeal to spy novel buffs and lovers of historical novels, as well as any general reader intrigued with the power struggles of World War I. If you’ve never read a novel by Butler — one of the great stylists writing today — you’re in for a treat with “The Empire of Night.”
About the Author
Robert Olen Butler is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of over a dozen novels, including Hell, A Small Hotel, and two previous installments of the Christopher Marlowe Cobb series, The Hot Country and The Star of Istanbul. He is also the author of six short collections and a book on the creative process, From Where You Dream. He 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.
His website: http://www.robertolenbutler.com