Christopher Marlowe Cobb, an American abroad in 1915, is the resourceful hero of Robert Olen Butler’s Paris in the Dark. The alienated son of a famous stage actress, Cobb plays several roles in his life. As 'Kit' Cobb, he’s a foreign correspondent for a Chicago newspaper. But as Josef Wilhelm Jäger—and sometimes Joseph Hunter—he disguises himself as a writer for a syndicate of American German-language publications. Why the need to blur his identity? Because he’s also a secret agent working for the United States government ... One of the pleasures of Mr. Butler’s series lies in how the author brings an earlier era to such convincing life through details, attitudes and reactions at once realistic and surprising. Paris in the Dark, with its ironic twists.
Paris in the Dark is Butler’s 17th novel; he’s also published six short fiction collections, one of which, A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain, received the Pulitzer Prize ... Those credentials show in the novel’s well-crafted prose and Kit’s convincing voice, which ranges from tough-guy to lyrical. Butler doesn’t just bring literary cred to his spy novels, though. Like Cobb, the author grew up in the theater—his father was an actor and theater professor—and, even more saliently, he served in the Army Military Intelligence Corps during the Vietnam War. All that adds depth and authenticity to Cobb’s character—not to mention fallibility. Butler lets us see him constructing characters to play and analyzing the motives and goals of the people he deals with. Cobb is no invincible James Bond; he makes mistakes, sometimes serious ones. Much of the novel’s pleasure comes from Butler’s smart details about how different spycraft was a century ago ... In short, Cobb has to rely mainly on his wits. Fortunately, he has a robust supply, and following him through (and under) the streets of Paris is a satisfying, stylish thrill.
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 ... Butler, 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 ... 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.