Thursday, 14 May 2015

The Star of Istanbul by Robert Olen Butler

review by Maryom 

It's 1915 and American war correspondent Christopher Marlowe "Kit" Cobb is being sent to war-torn Europe with a double mission - to send back exciting copy for his newspaper, but also to do a little spying on the side - after all, no one's going to think twice about a nosy reporter asking questions are they? Sailing on the Lusitania, Cobb's instructions are to keep track of Walter Brauer, a German-American, an expert in Islamic studies lecturing at King's College in London and suspected German spy, but he soon finds himself distracted by the charms of movie-star, Selene Bourgani. Bourgani is as enigmatic as she is beautiful, and seems to have links to Brauer and possibly even be working with him. As Cobb follows the pair to London and on into Europe he uncovers a plot that could change the whole course of the war.....

The Star of Istanbul is a thrilling spy adventure set in the early part of World War 1, before the US involvement so Cobb is able to travel fairly freely throughout Europe. Although he doesn't find himself in any actual war zones, there's danger enough as the Lusitania is attacked (yes, he's on that voyage!), London is bombed from Zeppelins, and the German secret service try to stop Cobb in more personal ways.
There's a dash of Erskine Childers' The Riddle of the Sands and John Buchan's Richard Hannay thrillers, written more or less at the time of WW1, about it all, with glamorous spies, dastardly Germans, and a hero out to foil the bad guys' plot and save his country. Throw in an exotic location - Istanbul - and what more could you want?
It's a tense, twisty read, that takes the reader back to an age before hi-tech spying gadgets, when the hero had to rely on his quick wits alone. As a whole I found it really enjoyable book, full of treachery, intrigue and suspense, but occasionally a little too wordy which slowed down the action. Cobb isn't a 'professional' spy and some of the things he has to do sit uneasily with him, even when they're absolutely vital to his survival. Selene Bourgani though is rather a typical femme fatale style spy, with a mysterious past and deadly agenda, which I found a bit of a shame; I'd have liked to see a more rounded, fully developed character.

I haven't read the first Kit Cobb story, The Hot Country, but found no problems (other than maybe plot spoilers for previous book) in jumping in here.

Maryom's review - 4.5 stars
Publisher - No Exit Press
Genre - Adult historical spy thriller World War 1

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