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Review: Robert Olen Butler's 'Empire of Night' a beautifully crafted spy thriller

Robert Olen Butler
Published Oct. 2, 2014

Robert Olen Butler earned a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1993 for A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain, a short story collection that grew out of his experiences as a military intelligence officer during the Vietnam War.

In his recent series of books about journalist-turned-spy Christopher "Kit" Cobb, Butler has set his character's rip-roaring adventures against a different war a century ago: World War I.

Butler holds the Michael Shaara Chair in Creative Writing at Florida State University and is a prolific writer who has published fiction in a very wide range of styles. The Cobb books are historical fiction, abounding in carefully researched details and lively with vivid characters and clever, whiz-bang adventure plots.

The first book, The Hot Country, took place largely in Mexico, and the second's setting is featured in its title, Star of Istanbul. The third, The Empire of Night, begins in London, where Kit has come to see his mother, Isabel Cobb, "one of the great stars of the American stage," perform the title role in Hamlet (a smashing success).

Isabel has appeared in the books before, and the pair's unusual familial relationship is one of the pleasures of the series. Kit grew up backstage, and he knows acting from the inside out, which is useful to him in his espionage work but often gives his dealings with Isabel a twist — he's never quite sure whether she's performing a role, even with him.

As it turns out, both mother and son have performances in store. Although the United States has not yet entered World War I — as Kit says, "Wilson was still twisted around trying to find his backbone, even with a hundred and twenty-eight dead Americans on the Lusitania" — U.S. intelligence is working with the British, whose cities are being bombed by a formidable new German weapon, the Zeppelin.

Kit's other reason for being in London is to meet with his handler and learn about his assignment. He's undercover as "Joseph William Hunter. Formerly Josef Wilhelm Jager, which I was keeping quiet about. From Chicago he was publishing widely in the German-language newspapers and the German-American English-language newspapers in the U.S.A. He was a damn good writer, sentence to sentence at least, although he clearly had an agenda. He was a justifier and apologist for the home country."

The idea is for Hunter/Jager to get next to Sir Albert Stockman. An English baronet, member of Parliament and one of the bevy of members of the German branch of Queen Victoria's family, Stockman is suspected of spying for the Germans. He's flying "an automobile-size Union Jack" on the roof of his luxurious castle at the mouth of the Thames, but that flag might be something other than a grand patriotic gesture.

Kit, however, will not be the only one playing a high-stakes role when he goes to an extravagant party at Stockman's castle. Also recruited to spy on the baronet is the woman he is pursuing with great ardor: Isabel. Is her attraction to Stockman real or feigned? Even Kit isn't sure.

The plot moves with an accelerating pace from England to Germany, and from research labs (where Kit meets an interesting fellow by the name of Einstein) to an airfield for the enormous Zeppelins, on one of which the breathtaking finale of the book will take place.

The Empire of Night is a cracking good spy thriller, with a cast of memorable characters and a terrifically suspenseful plot that will have you casting the movie as you read. And Butler's elegant writing elevates the book — he is a master of everything from lyrical description to believable dialogue, and he even has some fun with tough-guy repartee, like this exchange between Kit and his handler:

"Trask was referring to Gallipoli. Churchill had authored the disaster in the Dardanelles, which wasn't over yet. 'I got pretty close to that,' I said.

" 'Right,' Trask said. 'Which reminds me. Good work in Istanbul.'

"I grunted.

"Yesterday's bullets."

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

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