Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Review of The Hot Country by Robert Olen Butler (No Exit Press, 2014)

The son of a famous stage actress, Christopher Marlowe Cobb, or ‘Kit’ to his friends, is a war correspondent for the Chicago Post-Express.  After stints reporting from the Balkans and other hot spots he finds himself in Mexico in the spring of 1914.  A civil war is unfolding and the arrest of a handful of American sailors by the Mexican authorities has led to the US seizing the port of Vera Cruz.  The US marines arrive at the same time as a shipment of armaments on a German ship.  The occupation is not entirely peaceful, with a few skirmishes with local forces and a sniper winging collaborators and a marine.  With the help of a young pickpocket Cobb seeks to identify the sniper and the identity and intentions of a man sneaked into the port from the German ship.  He has a nose for a good story and senses he could be onto a major scoop, though the adventure to claim it might cost him his life. 

Robert Olen Butler is a Pulitzer winning literary writer who in The Hot Country turns his talents to historical crime fiction.  The result, for me at least, is a story that has the prose, pace and reflective aspects of literary fiction, but lacks the tightness, edge and intrigue of crime fiction.  The book is billed as a thriller, but the pace is for the most part languid and the tale drawn out with few tension points, especially in the first half where there are some incidents but they lack edge and verve.  Added to this, the historical context is underdeveloped.  I know very little about Mexican history or its relations with the US and having read the story I still know little beyond the two month, narrowly presented slice of the story.  Somewhat ironically given that the lead character is a journalist, the reader is provided with next to no wider context.  The story did not need to be an in-depth history lesson, but it did need to provide a reasonable amount of historical orientation.  Taken together, the pace, lack of context and tension, left me adrift rather than being captivated.  Once the tale left Vera Cruz it picked up pace a little and became more adventurous, with Cobb shifting from reporting history to actively intervening and creating it by adopting the swashbuckling role of an undercover, frontline war correspondent.  It was a shame then that the qualities of the second half of the story did not run throughout.  On the plus side, Cobb is an engaging lead character, I really enjoyed the subplot of his correspondence with his wayward mother, and there is enough potential to suggest an interesting series.  Indeed, despite being a little lukewarm to this outing, I would be interested in reading about Cobb’s next adventure.

1 comment:

pattinase (abbott) said...

I like his short story collection A GOOD SCENT FROM a STRANGE MOUNTAIN.