I didn’t think when I started reading THE STAR OF ISTANBUL that I would be writing these words, but here I go: This is a better book than THE HOT COUNTRY. While THE HOT COUNTRY introduced Christopher Marlowe Cobb, Robert Olen Butler’s latest is a bit more accessible (in part from standing on the strong shoulders of its predecessor), somewhat more focused (which is no easy trick), and just a tad better paced. Butler, a Pulitzer Prize winner, has made a career of meeting and exceeding his own standards with each new work --- and he continues that practice with THE STAR OF ISTANBUL, the second installment in his continuing foray into series fiction.
"Butler is nothing short of amazing in THE STAR OF ISTANBUL. His description of the aftermath of the attack on the Lusitania will leave you with your heart in your mouth...and his ability to draw ironic ley lines between seemingly disparate events of the past and contemporary times is first-rate."
Cobb is a reporter, a war correspondent who is also a spy for the U.S. government. As the book begins, the Great War is chugging right along with the involvement of the United States a dim certainty on the horizon. The fact that the U.S. is on the sidelines for the moment does not obviate the need for espionage. Cobb accordingly is tasked with shadowing Walter Brauer, a German intellectual of some renown who may also be an Secret Service agent. Cobb’s undercover mission puts him front and center on the deck of the good ship Lusitania, as it makes what is to be a fateful voyage across the Atlantic toward a rendezvous with destiny. Before that fateful encounter occurs, Cobb meets with and is smitten by a popular film actress named Selene Bourgani, whose enigmatic background is eclipsed only by her mysterious stage presence.
As rumors dip and swirl, Cobb and Bourgani begin a star-crossed affair that persists in spite of the Lusitania’s sinking by a German U-Boat, and notwithstanding Bourgani’s apparent relationship with Brauer, who is on a mission of his own that requires he deliver an apparently willing Bourgani into the hands of German intelligence. Things are not as they seem, however, and it soon becomes clear that Bourgani’s intentions and plans do not hew or adhere to what the Germans have in store for her. Cobb attempts to walk a fine line in aiding and protecting Bourgani --- particularly when he discovers, late in the game, what she is really up to --- and fulfilling his role as an American spy. As the unlikely duo follow a dangerous trail from London to Istanbul, Cobb is able, in the end, to accomplish both of his goals, but at a cost that is dear to him.
Butler is nothing short of amazing in THE STAR OF ISTANBUL. His description of the aftermath of the attack on the Lusitania will leave you with your heart in your mouth --- you might consider canceling your next cruise --- and his ability to draw ironic ley lines between seemingly disparate events of the past and contemporary times is first-rate. At a point or two, Cobb also gives what seems to be a subtle nod to James Bond without overstating it. Most importantly, though, Butler has written a work of historical fiction with modern literary components that is nonetheless evocative of the fiction of the era --- early 20th century --- so that one almost feels at times as if they are reading a newly discovered novel from the pages of Collier’s Weekly or perhaps Argosy.
THE STAR OF ISTANBUL is yet another remarkable work from an author who continues, at this advanced stage of his career, to surpass himself.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on November 1, 2013