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.