The Hot Country by Robert Olen Butler is a historical crime novel set in early-20th-century Mexico (available October 2, 2012).
When we meet Christopher Marlowe “Kit” Cobb, war correspondent for a Chicago newspaper, he’s in Veracruz, Mexico. The nation is in turmoil. General Victoriano Huerta, who seized power during a recent coup, is running things, but his position is not secure. He’s already made an enemy of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson and he has plenty of opposition in his own country, including the revolutionary resistance fighter Pancho Villa.
Meanwhile, the German government has begun cozying up to various opposition leaders—whoever they think might wind up in charge and might sympathize with their anti-American sentiments. All in all, Mexico in 1914 is a dangerous place, particularly if you’re an American reporter digging around for information you’re not supposed to have.
None of this is news to Cobb, 34 years old and already seasoned after stints covering military activity/intervention in Nicaragua and in the Balkans.
Even from behind I had the look of a war correspondent. There but not there. Unafraid of the battle and floating along just a little above it all. [. . .] I had a razor press in my dark trousers and my white shirt was fresh. We boys of the Fourth Estate love our image and our woodchopper’s feel for words. It’s an image you like your editors to have of you . . .
He’s part of a press corps that includes real-life correspondent Richard Harding Davis and that typically bump into each other in the likeliest of unlikely places. This time it’s outside the Veracruz City Hall where a sniper is picking off human targets from a rooftop.
“. . . We do find ourselves working for the same beats.”
“How sad,” I said, “that we now find ourselves chasing single gunshots.”
“Though at least it sounded like a Mauser,” Davis said.
To an attentive ear, quite a different sound from our boys’ Springfield 03s. A sniper, he was suggesting. I kept my mouth shut.
“No matter,” Davis said. “We’ll all be in Europe soon enough, I wager.”
“I wouldn’t wager against that,” I said.
Cobb is drawn slightly larger than life, but only slightly. He speaks fluent Spanish and he knows how to handle firearms, but he’s not particularly heroic or altruistic. He’s confident without seeming cocky; smart, and a little smart-alecky too. Plus, as the only child of a single mother who happens to be a renowned stage actress, he has acquired the ability to lie convincingly which comes in quite handy when your job requires you to bluff your way into places you don’t belong.
Mostly, though, Cobb is driven by dedication to his work, the importance of which cannot be overstated. In truth, during the Wilson administration—and even before—reporters on the ground were a vital source of intelligence for the U.S. government and it wasn’t unusual for officials to rely on newspapers to provide them with the most up-to-date information on overseas activities. So when Cobb leaves Veracruz in pursuit of a German diplomat on a secret mission, we soon realize there’s more at stake than his byline on a front-page story—what he learns will affect U.S. national security.
The Hot Country is billed as a crime novel although it’s not crime fiction in the strictest sense. It leans more toward espionage although it’s not strictly a spy novel either. Regardless of what you call it however The Hot Country is an awfully good read.
Robert Olen Butler, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1993 for the short story collection A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, has the enviable ability to capture the essence of people and places, thoughts and feelings, using just the right details. Nothing is over-written or over-explained, yet it’s all so vivid you can hear the crack of the shotguns, taste the sour burn of the pulque, smell the trail dust on the sombreros. The Hot Country is Butler’s first Christopher Marlowe Cobb novel. I hope there are more to come.
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Leslie Gilbert Elman is the author of Weird But True: 200 Astounding, Outrageous, and Totally Off the Wall Facts. Follow her on Twitter @leslieelman.
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