It might be set more than century ago, in a foreign land filled with political puzzles and unfamiliar factions, but Paris In The Dark delivers a completely convincing story, grounded in a solidly credible scenario. There aren’t so many characters that your head spins trying to recall them all, and the narrative itself is pretty straightforward. Yet that seeming simplicity masks multiple layers of subtle sophistication, of meticulous research delivered almost offhand.
Bookshelves bulge these days with an array of historical spy stories. Few are as persuasive, powerful and flat-out pleasurable as this one. It’s authentic and absorbing, crafted by a wordsmith so skilled that he delivers complete characters in a single sentence; reveals truth and it consequences in dialogue left unsaid. This is accomplished writing which doesn’t stoop to pulp stunts – it simply drags you into the reality of the story with its confident quality.
It’s 1916. The guns of the Great War never stop firing; the terrible stalemate of trench warfare is grinding down the French. The maimed and wounded are commonplace in the capital. Bombs fall on city streets. Paris is long way from the front lines, yet in every sense it is a city under bitter siege.
Kit Cobb is an American reporter, trying to convince his country to weigh in on the side of the British and French. He’s also an effective undercover agent, occasionally unwilling to carry out the distasteful tasks which patriotism demands of him… but very capable of incisive action when it’s required. He’s far more complex than the average spook, too; cognisant of both sides of the story, able to see beyond social standing, class, creed and nationality. There are moments when you feel that there’s no firm boundary between his Germanic undercover identity, his cover story and the ‘real’ man. And this story revolves around how he can resolve a slew of conflicting interests.
It’s a tightly defined story, but within its coiled confines the narrative illuminates the nuances of the European conflict – and the boiling pot of American society which will come to define the following century. On top of that, Paris In The Dark is also a ripping yarn, a beat-the-clock gumshoe mystery which Kit must solve to prevent carnage, political disaster, and great harm to people he’s come to care for. It would be a first-class thriller were it set in the present day – the fact that Butler brings WW1 so vividly to life makes it all the more remarkable. Definitely recommended for fans of Alan Furst.
I’d not read any of the earlier books in the series, and I didn’t need to. This works perfectly well as a stand-alone if you too are new to the Kit Cobb novels. However, I now know what I’ve been missing and will seek out the other ones, pronto!
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
Paris in The Dark by Robert Olen Butler is available at Amazon