The Star of Istanbul: A Christopher Marlowe Cobb Thrillerby Robert Olen Butler
World War I is in full swing. Germany has allied itself with the Ottoman empire, persuading the caliphs of Turkey to declare a jihad on the British empire, as President Woodrow Wilson hesitates to enter the fray. War correspondent and American spy Christopher Marlowe Cobb has been tasked to follow a man named Brauer, a German intellectual and possible secret service agent, into perilous waters aboard the ship Lusitania, as the man is believed to hold information vital to the war effort. Aboard the Lusitania on its fateful voyage, Cobb becomes smitten with famed actress Selene Bourgani, who for some reason appears to be working with German Intelligence.
Soon Cobb realizes that this simple actress is anything but, as she harbors secrets that could pour gasoline on the already raging conflict. Following the night of the infamous German U-Boat attack on the Lusitania, Cobb must follow Selene and Brauer into the darkest alleyways of London, then on to the powder keg that is Istanbul. He must use all the cunning he possesses to uncover Selene’s true motives, only to realize her hidden agenda could bring down some of the world's most powerful leaders.
“Butler’s hero is hard-boiled, with a streak of the romantic, and Chase’s control of the narration makes the reading both suspenseful and highly dramatic.”
The second foray into crime fiction by Pulitzer-winning novelist Butler features a big shipwreck, a little seduction and a lot of chatter. Following Mexico-set The Hot Country (2012), Butler puts journalist/secret agent Christopher "Kit" Marlowe Cobb on the ill-fated ocean liner the Lusitania, whose sinking by a German U-boat in 1915 helped thrust the United States into World War I. Cobb is ostensibly tailing a German agent while traveling in style across the Atlantic, but his attention is equally drawn to Selene, a silent-film star with whom he starts a fling. If that's behavior not necessarily befitting a secret agent, it does draw Cobb further into a tangled plot involving codebreaking, rare books and alliances with Turkish leaders. Butler is an excellent observer of interior psychological detail--he enjoys having Cobb test conversational patter for hidden meanings--and his fine description of the Lusitania's demise shows he can write action-packed scenes as well. Even so, this is a wordy book for one that aspires to the crisp efficiency of a thriller. Cobb can deliver noirish tough-guy patter, particularly when he's tangling with a goon or bedding Selene, but his scene descriptions can often feel like overstuffed sofas of detail and conversational analysis. That's unfortunate, since underneath that ornamentation is a thoughtful study of the moral obligation to violence: In the same way the Lusitania incident forced the U.S. off the sidelines, Cobb is routinely put in positions where doing nothing is the wrong choice, a point that hits home toward the novel's end as he witnesses evidence of the Turkish mass slaughter of Armenians. Though the story drags somewhat, it's a pleasure to watch Cobb clear away layer upon layer of scheming and disguises to expose some ugly truths about humanity. A respectable work of historical crime fiction, a form Butler is still mastering.
- Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
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Meet the Author
Robert Olen Butler is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of fourteen novels, six story collections, and a book on the creative process, From Where You Dream. A recipient of both a Guggenheim Fellowship in fiction and a National Endowment for the Arts grant, he also won the Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. He has twice won a National Magazine Award in Fiction and has received two Pushcart Prizes. The Star of Istanbul is his second novel featuring Christopher Marlowe Cobb. He teaches creative writing at Florida State University.
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