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It’s November 1915 and Europe is a battle zone. Americans are flocking to the continent, even though the United States has not formerly entered the war. Christopher Marlowe ‘Kit’ Cobb, reporter and part-time spy, is among them, as Robert Olen Butler’s elegant new thriller opens, the Nieuports weaving their patterns in the skies up above as he tosses back Bijous in a Paris café. Then there’s the explosion.

Someone had bombed the ground floor café in the Terminus Montparnasse Hôtel, reduced it to the twisted ironwork of the sidewalk canopy, the shredded and smoldering canvas of the awning, the fragmented clutter of what had been tables and chairs.’

Officially, Cobb’s in France covering a story about American ambulance drivers, the men and women who deal with the everyday casualties of war. Unofficially, his attention is focused on the ‘death by dynamite’ bombings taking place all over Paris, perpetrated, he believes, by Germans infiltrating the city among the refugees flooding there. Cobb, who’s fluent in German, seems the natural person to investigate, or so his spymaster thinks.

Butler’s natural eloquence and deliberate prose elevate Paris in the Dark to more than just an engaging wartime thriller with a romantic subplot, which would, quite frankly, be enough in itself. His attention to detail, evocation of time and place and careful characterisation create a stylish, intelligent, literary thriller, one suitably tense, tragic and also mesmerising in parts. It brings to mind Graham Greene, aka Our Man in Havana- and Stamboul Train-days.

Although set more than 100 years ago in, one would think, a very different world, many of the themes Butler writes about sadly still run true today – fierce nationalism, xenophobia, conflict and a world pretty much gone mad. As George Bernard Shaw once wrote: ‘If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must Man be of learning from experience.’

An engrossing read, Paris in the Dark is really all one wants from a thriller, entertaining, informative and beautifully composed. It’s our first foray into Kit Cobb’s world: it won’t be our last.

Paris in the Dark | Robert Olen Butler | No Exit Press | 25 October 2018 | hardback | £14.99

 

Acknowledgements: Quoted text from p. 14 Paris in the Dark © Robert Olen Butler 2018. This review is published as part of the virtual book tour organised by Anne Cater (thank you!). Many thanks also to Katherine Sunderland and No Exit Press for supplying a book proof. All opinions are our own. All rights reserved.

 

See also:Ken Lussey’s compelling Eyes Turned Skywards‘; ‘Soundings – in search of one father’s war’ (art review); ‘Mary Monro’s Stranger in My Heart‘; ‘Only Remembered edited by Michael Morpurgo’; ‘ ‘Another one bites the dust: Symon’s Overkill; ‘Beautiful words – The Language of Secrets’; ‘We should all be feminists’; ‘Jane Harper’s stylish debut – The Dry’; ‘Mallory an old-style hero – It Happens in the Dark by Carol O’Connell’; ‘How Penguin learned to fly – Allen Lane and the Original “Penguin Ten”’; ‘Gunnar Staalesen: The Literary Lounge Q&A’; Some like it hot – the joy of Carole Mortimer, award-winning novelist.

Film (select): The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) – a Billy Wilder classic?; Night Mail (1936), changing the face of British film; A Colour Box by Len Lye (1935); Hitchcock (2012); The Splendour of George Stevens’ Giant (1956).

 

This review is © 2018 by The Literary Shed. All rights reserved. All opinions are our own. We welcome your feedback and comments. If you wish to reproduce this piece, please do contact us to request permission. Thank you so much.