The Empire of Night: A Christopher Marlowe Cobb Thriller

  • By Robert Olen Butler
  • The Mysterious Press
  • 401 pp.

Strong characters and a vivid sense of place make this third installment in the Cobb series a winner.

Intrigue and the romance of adventure pace this historical thriller by Robert Olen Butler. It is the third installment in his series featuring journalist/spy Christopher Marlowe Cobb, set in the administration of Woodrow Wilson — a period unfamiliar to most American readers, but so important in creating the world we live in.

After sending Cobb to Mexico during their civil war and Wilson’s invasion of Vera Cruz in The Hot Country, and then to wartime Europe in The Star of Istanbul, this newest adventure places Cobb in a London under siege from bombardment by Germany’s zeppelins.

Now working outright as a spy for the U.S. government, the intrepid Cobb is assigned to investigate suspected treason by a British baronet of German ancestry. The twist this time is that his partner in the mission is his own mother, the famous stage actress Isabel Cobb.

Butler, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his short-story collection A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, writes prose that is at once tight and fluid, disciplined in a way that clears all obstacles for the reader. His vivid descriptions of London and wartime Germany are as atmospheric as anything by Alan Furst, but without the murkiness.

The first-person narration by Kit, as Cobb is known, reveals a sympathetic if volatile protagonist who is often ambivalent about his role as a spy. This self-doubt comes to a head when he is pitted against German soldiers, whom he admires for their bravery and integrity despite a mission that puts them all on a collision course.

In this book, too, Cobb faces the delicate issue of working with his mother. Butler pulls off the challenging task of how an adult son deals with his parent’s love life without being cloying or descending into dangerous Oedipal territory.

Isabel Cobb is involved, in fact, because the suspected baronet, Sir Albert Stockman, is a big fan of hers, and his seduction is part of the Cobbs’ mission to unmask him. Their investigation leads them to follow Stockman from his estate on the Dover coast to Berlin and then to the zeppelin air bases in western Germany to find out his deadly secret.

With Kit posing as a German-American journalist sympathetic to the German cause in the war — America did not enter the conflict until later — both Cobbs develop a relationship with Stockman that keeps him from being just a two-dimensional villain.

Butler expands the confines of the thriller genre to illuminate the ambiguities of war, the good in evil, and the evil in good. There is never a question in Kit’s mind as to which side he is on, and no amount of doubt hinders him in completing his mission. But war, treachery, and espionage inevitably pose some moral dilemmas.

Butler established his literary reputation as a Vietnam veteran who could depict the moral ambiguity of that conflict. He also comes from a theatrical heritage and studied theater himself, so he brings a lot of authority to his narrative.

The plot moves along at a good pace, though there is perhaps a bit too much second-guessing of a look, a smile, a slip of the tongue. There is some busyness that could also have been cut — this 400-page book might have been better if it were 50 pages shorter. Also, unaccountably, Butler likes to dwell on his characters’ smoking, which may be part of creating period authenticity, but which would not have been missed had there been less of it.

Butler has some fun bringing the young Albert Einstein into the picture as a German-Jewish scientist disaffected with his native country, but enduring it — and being endured by the Berlin establishment — for the sake of his research. Einstein supplies a critical clue to Kit in unraveling the mystery behind Stockman’s secretive dealings in Germany.

As with those set in England, every detail of the scenes in Germany rings true, immersing the reader in a credible and authentic narrative from start to finish.

Not least, the focus on zeppelins enhances the sense of adventure, as these massive airships never fail to capture the imagination. While films from “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” to “The Rocketeer” depict the Nazis’ use of zeppelins, they were a novel factor in the earlier war, as well.

This is the drama Butler brings to life so vividly in this newest Cobb thriller, making it a satisfying read for any fan of the genre.

Darrell Delamaide, a Washington, DC-based journalist and writer, is author of the historical thriller The Grand Mirage, set in 1910 in the Middle East.

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