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Review: Robert Olen Butler's Paris in the Dark packed with action

Published Sep. 21, 2018

On a fall night in 1915, an American reporter sips Chartreuse at a sidewalk table as German Zeppelins patrol the perimeter of Paris. As he plans how to finagle his way to the front lines of World War I, a bomb explodes at another cafe nearby, and he heads right for the scene.

Paris in the Dark, Robert Olen Butler's fourth in a series of historical spy thrillers, starts with that literal bang and doesn't let up, surrounding its engaging protagonist with rich atmosphere and a propulsive plot.

Christopher Marlowe Cobb, called Kit, is an intrepid war correspondent for a Chicago newspaper — a job that serves as perfect cover for his second career as a spy for the U.S. government. He also has skills learned from his mother, a star of the stage whose acting techniques he has absorbed.

In the first three books in the series, Cobb conducted espionage in Mexico, Turkey, England and Germany as World War I heated up. Paris in the Dark takes place with France fully involved in the war, Britain on the brink of joining in and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson earning no friends among the French for his insistence on isolationism.

Cobb comes to Paris as a reporter, to write about the many Americans who have flocked to volunteer in the war effort, especially ambulance drivers. He hopes to embed with them as they drive into the hellish front to transport wounded soldiers back to Paris.

It's the only way he can get a "decent story" about the war, he tells us, thanks to "one of the nasty advances of this so-called Great War. Strictly codified censorship of the news. A parallel war against a free press. We could not get into the battle-line trenches where the bodies of the husbands and sons and fathers of Europe were being savaged. … All in the name of public morale."

Cobb meets a journalist's dream trio of young American ambulance drivers: a Midwestern farmer's son named Cyrus Parsons, a Southerner called Jefferson Jones and a Harvard man, John Lacey. He also meets (shades of A Farewell to Arms) a bright, beautiful, brave nurse named Louise Pickering.

But even before Cobb makes those fateful connections, he witnesses that bombing. In short order, he's called upon to serve in his other role, tracking down suspected German saboteurs among the city's immigrant population.

He finds himself working for — and maneuvering between — two spymasters, the icy James Polk Trask from the American Embassy and the formidable Henri Fortier on the French side. Their aims are ostensibly the same, but Cobb can never be sure.

He also finds himself involved with Louise and questioning just how much truth about himself he can tell her — and how much danger their relationship might put her in.

Paris in the Dark is Butler's 17th novel; he's also published six short fiction collections, one of which, A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain, received the Pulitzer Prize. He has won, among other honors, the F. Scott Fitzgerald Award for outstanding achievement in American Literature and holds the Michael Shaara Chair in creative writing at Florida State University.

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Those credentials show in the novel's well-crafted prose and Kit's convincing voice, which ranges from tough-guy to lyrical. Butler doesn't just bring literary cred to his spy novels, though. Like Cobb, the author grew up in the theater — his father was an actor and theater professor — and, even more saliently, he served in the Army Military Intelligence Corps during the Vietnam War.

All that adds depth and authenticity to Cobb's character — not to mention fallibility. Butler lets us see him constructing characters to play and analyzing the motives and goals of the people he deals with. Cobb is no invincible James Bond; he makes mistakes, sometimes serious ones.

Much of the novel's pleasure comes from Butler's smart details about how different spycraft was a century ago. Cobb has no Google to conduct research or GPS tracker to hide on a subject's car, not even a portable camera. The most high-tech device he can deploy is the telephone, and he has to walk blocks to find one of the city's few phone booths. Imagine the difficulty of conducting surveillance when, every time the guy you're tailing makes a move, you have to jump out of your car and turn its crank to start the engine.

In short, Cobb has to rely mainly on his wits. Fortunately, he has a robust supply, and following him through (and under) the streets of Paris is a satisfying, stylish thrill.

Contact Colette Bancroft at or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.


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