“The Star of Istanbul,” to be published in October, is the second in a series by Robert Olen Butler recounting the adventures of Christopher (Kit) Marlowe Cobb, a Chicago newspaper reporter. Cobb got himself mixed up with some bandits, some Germans, some weapons and Woodrow Wilson in last fall’s “The Hot Country,” set in 1914.
Now it’s 1915, and he’s more a spy for the U.S. government who masquerades as a reporter than the other way around. His assignment is to follow a German citizen working in the U.S. who is suspected of carrying information that could affect the outcome of the war.
Butler writes his action in slow motion: He pulled his knife, and I drew my pistol, and he threw the knife, and I ducked, and he was running, and I was running, firing as I ran, and he fell, and as I got close to him, he sat up and whipped out another knife, and so on, and so on.
I prefer my action short and snappy: I shot him. He dropped to the floor. I stepped over his body and ran down the stairs. The maid would find him in the morning. Now I needed a drink.
But that would be a different book. If you aren’t troubled by his breathless thrills, Butler is great fun. There’s a mysterious dark-haired beauty (there was another in “The Hot Country,” and for several pages here, I thought they were the same person), and there are disguises, and taxis that arrive out of nowhere with fervently loyal drivers. These are the adventures you’d want to have yourself if you were that kind of guy. And a very good shot.
Also, on the very first page Cobb follows his German right up the gangplank onto the Lusitania.
The story falters once the characters arrive in Instanbul, but altogether there are thrills aplenty. You know Butler will send Cobb to Russia (where he will meet a mysterious dark-haired beauty) in 1917. I look forward to finding out where he goes in 1916.
If you like a little noir in your novel, Didier Daenincke’s “A Very Profitable War” might suit you. Translated from the French, it’s set in 1920 and involves a veteran turned detective scraping along in Paris on cheating wives and unfaithful husbands who uncovers a scandal that goes back to the war. The ending will make your eyes pop.