Paris in the Dark struck me as the quintessential literary thriller. It has both fine prose and an intriguing plot, a novel that reminded me of Ken Follett’s earliest work, combining the quiet narration of Alan Furst and gradual tightening suspense of John LeCarré. This is the fourth in Robert Olen Butler’s series of spy novels, putting Christopher Marlowe ‘Kit’ Cobb square in the middle of World War I in Paris. An American journalist by day, Cobb poses as a German-American one by night as he steadily uncovers secrets of the war strategy while embedding himself with military ambulance drivers. It’s an atmospheric story that doesn’t disappoint.
I’ve only read Robert Olen Butler’s more literary work so discovering this book was a nice surprise. He certainly knows this era of history and military machinations though he deftly weaves in details so that the effect is a seamless narration by a character who could have certainly existed in this era. There was no superficial or rushed research here.
Written by a Man for Male Readers?
Overall, the narrative sports a masculine tone: logical, chilly, distant from emotion. We get a lot of Cobb’s reportage of the what and where, even his interior thoughts, but we don’t get a lot of feelings. Cobb’s voice is on the removed side. And I imagine that might disappoint some. Still, I liked Cobb and wanted to see him succeed. He wasn’t a jerk or an antihero, just a stoic character who carries out his spy duties with understated dignity.
What I also appreciated was Olen Butler’s way of deepening characters by showing their humanity. He subtly weaves in their finer qualities and dark flaws. No character is too one-sided as they can sometimes be in thrillers. And the plot is not too straightforward either. As the book progresses, Cobb moves closer, bit by bit, to his target of a German bomber, but as he does the plot thickens and twists. Things are not as simple as they first seem. That the story ends in a thrilling climax makes it an all-the-more satisfying read.
In the end, I recommend Paris in the Dark for readers who like novels set during the first World War and don’t mind a quieter, more discreetly intriguing story.