The second foray into crime fiction by Pulitzer-winning novelist Butler features a big shipwreck, a little seduction and a lot of chatter.
Following Mexico-set The Hot Country (2012), Butler puts journalist/secret agent Christopher “Kit” Marlowe Cobb on the ill-fated ocean liner the Lusitania, whose sinking by a German U-boat in 1915 helped thrust the United States into World War I. Cobb is ostensibly tailing a German agent while traveling in style across the Atlantic, but his attention is equally drawn to Selene, a silent-film star with whom he starts a fling. If that’s behavior not necessarily befitting a secret agent, it does draw Cobb further into a tangled plot involving codebreaking, rare books and alliances with Turkish leaders. Butler is an excellent observer of interior psychological detail—he enjoys having Cobb test conversational patter for hidden meanings—and his fine description of the Lusitania’s demise shows he can write action-packed scenes as well. Even so, this is a wordy book for one that aspires to the crisp efficiency of a thriller. Cobb can deliver noirish tough-guy patter, particularly when he’s tangling with a goon or bedding Selene, but his scene descriptions can often feel like overstuffed sofas of detail and conversational analysis. That’s unfortunate, since underneath that ornamentation is a thoughtful study of the moral obligation to violence: In the same way the Lusitania incident forced the U.S. off the sidelines, Cobb is routinely put in positions where doing nothing is the wrong choice, a point that hits home toward the novel's end as he witnesses evidence of the Turkish mass slaughter of Armenians. Though the story drags somewhat, it’s a pleasure to watch Cobb clear away layer upon layer of scheming and disguises to expose some ugly truths about humanity.
A respectable work of historical crime fiction, a form Butler is still mastering.