Robert Olen Butler’s work defies easy categorization. His novels have dealt with everything from the Vietnam conflict across its timeline to Hell. Critics have expressed wildly conflicting conclusions about each and all of Butler’s books --- even the Pulitzer Prize-winning short story collection A GOOD SCENT FROM A STRANGE MOUNTAIN --- in part because it is so difficult to get a firm and defining grasp of the man and his work from book to book. His last novel, A SMALL HOTEL, dealt with psychological suspense. His latest work is, according to its subtitle, “A Christopher Marlowe Cobb Thriller.” It is also an espionage novel, a mystery (to a minor extent) and a western. However, it does not conform easily to the general guidelines that have evolved to classify each and all of these genres. Butler redefines not only his own work but also those who have gone before him.
"THE HOT COUNTRY is highly literary, to be sure, yet reads quickly. When things heat up, so does the prose in its substance and form. Butler is not slavishly obedient to form when a violation of stylistic elements will better serve the narration, and his willingness to deviate from established norms on occasion serves him well here."
THE HOT COUNTRY is Mexico in 1914, a time when the country is beset by war and turmoil from within and without. Christopher “Kit” Marlowe Cobb is a war correspondent who, in April of that year, is in Vera Cruz, which has just been invaded by the United States. Cobb, no fan of President Woodrow Wilson, nonetheless feels loyalty to the US, a feeling that is tested by recent events. Not the least of these is Cobb’s encounter with Luisa, a beautiful young Mexican laundress at his hotel. He is instantly smitten, but Luisa is more than she seems to be. When a crack sniper begins taking shots at American soldiers and government collaborators, Cobb suspects Luisa’s culpability in the shootings, either by aiding and abetting or by taking a more active role.
Cobb’s interest in the woman takes a backseat when he discovers that a German national has secretly entered Mexico, apparently at the behest of the German government, in an effort to influence events. While his primary interest in the man’s activities relate to his employment as a reporter, he soon finds himself taking on all of the characteristics of a spy, trailing the suspicious envoy into the camp of a famous revolutionary, where even greater surprises await not only Cobb but also the revolutionary himself. Along the way, Cobb becomes so deeply involved by circumstance in the story that he becomes a part of it, almost in spite of himself. Influenced by a number of different motivations --- some of which conflict with one another --- Cobb finds himself sitting on what may be the story of his (or anyone’s) career. Still, the biggest surprise comes after the story is written, and Cobb finds himself influencing events in ways that he never thought possible.
THE HOT COUNTRY is highly literary, to be sure, yet reads quickly. When things heat up, so does the prose in its substance and form. Butler is not slavishly obedient to form when a violation of stylistic elements will better serve the narration, and his willingness to deviate from established norms on occasion serves him well here. And while it stands well as a single work, Butler leaves open the possibility of Cobb’s return. Some will wonder about Butler’s choice of topics and genre, but those of us who enjoy genre fiction with a literary tone will find much to love here.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on November 9, 2012