Skip to main content

Paris in the Dark - Robert Olen Butler


 
Paris 1915, the United States’ entry to the First World War is eighteen months away. President Woodrow Wilson is committed to keeping America out of the war. Christopher Marlowe ‘Kit’ Cobb, American correspondent for the Chicago Post-Express and undercover agent for the US government, is resident in the city, ostensibly to tell the story of the volunteer American ambulance drivers helping the war effort, their nightly convoys ferrying French wounded to the city’s hospitals.
With war raging, the city’s morale on the verge of collapse and French authorities desperate to maintain control, Cobb the spy is assigned to investigate a wave of bombings of civilian targets. In the wake of one blast, he returns to pay his Café bill. His waiter catches the prevailing mood: ‘“The Barbarians,” he said. Meaning the Germans. “They are among us.”’ Suspicion falls on infiltrators among the refugees streaming into Paris from Alsace, northern France and Belgium. Cobb picks up the bombers' trail, navigating blacked-out streets and refugee bars with deadly consequences.
 
It’s hard to escape the contemporary resonances in Robert Olen Butler’s depiction of 1915. Old empires are crumbling; Europe tears itself apart. As violence is brought to the streets and cafés and terrorism used to justify outside intervention, Cobb is forced to question his own and his government’s positions. The parallels here are as much Graham Greene’s Quiet American and the earliest days of the Vietnam War as they are early 20th century Europe or 21st century everywhere.
 
‘A man’s naked arm, severed at the elbow, its hand with palm turned upward, its fingers splayed in the direction of the café, as if it were the master of ceremonies to this production of the Grand Guignol.’
Cobb’s character is entirely convincing as journalist and spy; drinking, lying, lie detecting and reckless endangerment are transferable skills. And if at times he seems an almost Buchanesque hero – his Mauser pistol is permanently tucked into his belt – Cobb is never entirely untroubled, particularly when his relationship with Louise Pickering, an American nurse traumatised by the wrecked bodies of men she treats, threatens to expose the vulnerability of his double life.
 
As a reader, there’s always a risk of that ‘late to the party’ feel when coming to a character part way into a series – this is the fourth Kit Cobb novel after The Hot Country, The Star of Istanbul and The Empire of Night – but Paris in the Dark stands alone as a thoroughly rewarding thriller. (That’s not to say you won’t want to track down Cobb’s earlier outings.) Butler skilfully paces the narrative, balancing deception, misdirection and reveal with historical realism, quality writing, and insightful modern perspective.
 

Paris in the Dark is available for pre-order and will be published by NoExit Press in October.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

LEGACY OF BRIT NOIR – BLOODY SCOTLAND POSTSCRIPT

I was lucky enough to join the exodus north to the glorious city of Stirling last weekend for the Bloody Scotland crime writing festival for the panel, The Legacy of Brit Noir. Joining novelists Cathi Unsworth and Harry Brett and ably directed and moderated by crime writer, Douglas Skelton, the conversation was free-flowing and the audience ready to engage with the discussion at Q&A time. All in all a fantastic weekend with some interesting and thought provoking debate, great scenery, a healthy dose of end of the pier entertainment, and a few beers with old and new friends.
For the most part, the Brit Noir panel covered ground we knew well: in brief, an attempt to define noir in the US and European tradition, how the genre in Britain emerges from an influx of European artists, writers and film makers in the 1930s and 40s and, similarly, blacklisted writers and film makers forced to leave the US in the 1950s. The noir sensibility, particularly of the film-makers, permeates Britis…
Life writing, memoir, autobiography. However you describe it, sometimes you just want to tell your story. Or to know how to make the most of the life story of someone you know. Writing nonfiction, particularly when you're so close to the subject, can be a daunting task. The idea behind these workshops, delivered in partnership with the Lil Drama Company at PAD Studios, is to demystify the writing process, to give participants the techniques and tools to enable them to approach their writing with confidence. In many ways, traditional history tends to focus on the momentous; but now, arguably more than ever, everyday life experiences of people are the places we go to hear the truth. I'd hope that over the three weeks of workshops participants can work towards finding their voice, bringing together memory and history to make sense of their own experiences, framing them on the page in a way that communicates and gives us all a greater understanding. For more info on this, Dave Wind…

PULP! THE CLASSICS - The Hound of the Baskervilles

You'll be familiar with the story - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's super sleuth Holmes goes down to the Moors in search of the legendary hound. The brilliantly inventive Moffatt and Gattiss BBC version notwithstanding, the story first found its way into the public imagination in serialised form in the Strand Magazine in 1901/02. It was the third of four Holmes novels written by Conan Doyle and stands the test of time as a great crime novel in its own right. 'Murder ... Mystery ... Walkies!' Now a re-published edition from Pulp! The Classics, an imprint of Oldcastle books, features a vivid retro pulp cover with artwork by David Mann, tongue in cheek taglines and  orange sprayed coloured page edges. Each book in the series re-prints the complete original text and The Hound of the Baskervilles is a great addition. Perfect for Holmes completists, crime fiction fans and  lovers of pulp art, it takes its place alongside The Great Gatsby, Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, Tess …