The Star of Istanbul by Robert Olen Butler

3 Mins read

James Bond has had plenty of literary rivals, none of whom have quite measured up to the British spy, but Christopher Marlowe ‘Kit’ Cobb just might. The war correspondent turned Secret Service agent is American and he’s from an earlier era (this novel is set in 1915). Nevertheless, readers of Ian Fleming’s novels will surely recognise some of Cobb’s characteristics: dashing, unflappable and capable of combining romance with the mission in hand. And like Bond, Cobb has a scar on his cheek that hints at his violent past.

The Star of Istanbul is the second book in the Cobb series following The Hot Country, which was set during the Mexican Civil War. It’s worth pointing out that Butler is a respected author who won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his first collection of stories, so there’s a literary pedigree behind this thriller series. But it’s probably just as important that he served in the Military Intelligence Corps during the Vietnam War. As well as being a superior espionage novel, The Star of Istanbul is a convincing story of action behind enemy lines that doesn’t gloss over the atrocities of conflict.

In the main, though, it’s a thrilling, old-fashioned tale of intrigue and adventure that grabs you immediately with a historical timebomb. Cobb, while maintaining his cover as a war reporter, is tasked by the Secret Service with tracking a mysterious German academic from New York to England. Unfortunately, he’s booked on the RMS Lusitania, and it’s probably not too much of a spoiler to mention the ocean liner was torpedoed by a German U-boat 100 years ago this month.

Butler’s account of this naval attack is powerfully gripping, not least because Cobb has to make some difficult decisions. Rescuing the Hollywood actress he’s spent the night with is a no-brainer, but he does have some qualms about knocking out a junior officer who tries to prevent them taking a short cut (the sailor no doubt went down with the ship). At least he gets a good story for his newspaper back home.

Cobb does develop over the course of the novel, though some may find him a bit too gung-ho in the first half. He tells the star he’s wooed, Selene Bourgani, about his having killed men. “It had to be done,” is his attitude. So, we get a sense that he’s an unapologetic agent of the US authorities. But as he gets closer to Selene, and becomes involved in a cause that’s not his own, things are less black and white.

The second part of the book has Cobb tracking his quarry in London, a city he knows from childhood, as his mother was an actress who took him on her travels. Following taxi chases through the city, the application of a cunning disguise and a close shave involving the Germans, he finally gets to relax with a meal at the Carlton served by the great chef Auguste Escoffier. As with Fleming’s fictional meals, the details are almost pornographic as Butler delights in describing this rich and elaborate feast.

If Cobb seems a bit cocky at this point, a sense of peril kicks in as he travels to Istanbul to complete his mission. His insouciance also takes a knock when he discovers he is being tracked by a mysterious German agent, who’s known as The Wolf. As Cobb has to take on various identities, just like his mother, life starts to become even more dangerous but he is not without friends.

After a breezy start, The Star of Istanbul builds to a compelling and bloody conclusion, a finale that Butler conducts with some style. His historical spy series is not just for James Bond fans – this is a smart, well-researched and fast-moving thriller that deserves to be a major hit.

The Empire of Night, the next novel in the Cobb series, is available on Kindle now ahead of its paperback publication in November.

No Exit Press

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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