Review: Paris in the Dark by Robert Olen Butler
By Thomas PluckSeptember 3, 2018
Paris in the Dark by Pulitzer Prize-winner Robert Olen Butler is the fourth book in the Christopher Marlowe Cobb series—a fleetly plotted but engaging historical mystery with political and cultural issues that resonate deeply today.
For some reason, I always thought historical fiction would be less compelling because we already know what happens. Now that I have put aside my foolishness, I enjoy them more than modern political thrillers. It began with Holly West’s Mistress of Fortune, which made me feel sympathy for the King of England—a tough sell to someone of Irish ancestry. Then David Liss’s The Whiskey Rebels brought the young United States to life, shortly after the Revolution. And now, Robert Olen Butler has hooked me with his Christopher Marlowe Cobb series about an American newsman and spy in the early days of the Great War. The series begins during the Mexican Civil War in 1914 with The Hot Country, and I can’t wait to read that one and the two between it and Paris in the Dark, which should tell you what I thought of his latest.
It is a slim volume, written spare like the journalism of the Hemingway era. We are thrown into the war in Paris as Zeppelins hunt for targets and biplanes defend the city. And not long after we meet newsman “Kit” Cobb, an explosion rocks a nearby café. The war has come to Paris, and he is soon called upon by his handler, James Polk Trask, to end his retirement as a spy and hunt the German terrorists who have infiltrated the City of Light.
I took a step off the island and onto the cobbles. My foot nudged something and I stopped again. I looked down.
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. Mesdames et messieurs, je vous présente la Grande Guerra. The goddamn Great War.
I lifted my eyes once more to the Café Terminus. Not one detail I was witnessing-not a bistro table in the middle of Boulevard Montparnasse, not the severed arm at my feet-Would ever make it past the news censor’s knife.
He is a newsman first, and as that is his cover, he is soon embedded with American volunteers driving Model T Fords converted to ambulances, picking up the wounded from the trenches and bringing them to hospitals. He meets Nurse Louise Pickering as well as American volunteers ranging from Harvard men to farm boys, and the characters are painted masterfully with minimal strokes. We see them through Cobb’s observant eyes, and he is a decent judge of people—though he can be wrong.
His first lead is a sinister German, new in town, hiding out at a secret basement rathskeller for German immigrants. The perfect place to hide an agent looking to wreak havoc on the French homefront and bring a quicker end to the bloody war before the United States decides to join the fight.
We know this as “inevitable,” but the country was set against intervention. The term “isolationist” was coined to insult those who didn’t want to join the war in Europe, and we have been eager interventionists ever since, beginning with the 1915 occupation of Haiti, working for United Fruit and others in Central America, and of course, our entry into World War I. (For more details on our military actions before the war, read War is a Racket by retired USMC General Smedley Butler, or I imagine, the three books of Cobb’s adventures prior to Paris in the Dark.)
Our Butler, Robert Olen, is very good at evoking the tension of the time for Americans, who were eager to help France in return for their gift of the Statue of Liberty and their assistance during our Revolution 150 years earlier. The volunteers carry gangrenous bodies out of the trenches and feel a twinge of shame that their government isn’t as game to join the fight. Here is Louise Pickering, the head nurse, facing off with Cobb’s rakishness:
She followed my scar with her eyes, slowly, from near her fingertips, up my cheek, to the point where a German’s saber in the camp of a Mexican rebel had begun its slice.
“Are you sure you have no more of these?”
“How can I convince you?” I said.
I didn’t myself fully understand what I was suggesting until she gave me that complex look a woman can sometimes give, when you faintly shock and offend her, even as you compliment her and intrigue her, even as you move her to the possibility of the ultimate suffrage, a woman’s right to elect to express love, or even simply desire, on her own terms.
Now I realized what I had asked. Of course I had.
The Parisians are equally well drawn, from the old waiter weary of the wars he’s witnessed to the proud soldier Fortier, who is eager to fight for his country. The characters are good to spend time with, even the German bartender who is, of course, rooting for his home country, cast as the villains in this tale. I found one character a bit too likable, and he might as well have been wearing a red shirt in an episode of Star Trek—but there’s a war on and people have to die, so it might as well be them.
The story doesn’t so much twist as peel back the complexities of the era and remind us of the anarchists who gave the imperialists their excuse for war. The terror the anarchists caused has faded from the popular picture of history, but Butler brings it into sharp relief here. Their motives are unthinkable today, bringing down the state with destruction and chaos, and being in the middle of it makes for a harrowing read. Leavened with Cobb’s delicate romance with Nurse Louise Pickering, it makes for a very enjoyable time in the second decade of the 20th century. I wonder what Cobb will get up to next? I’m glad I can see what he’s been up to beforehand while I wait.