Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Hot Country by Robert Olen Butler

The Hot CountryOlen Butler tries something unique with this wartime spy novel set in Veracruz, Mexico in 1914. World War I was beginning in Europe, Mexico was in the midst of the Mexican Revolution, the United States occupied Veracruz after a diplomatic dispute, and Germans used money and influence to encourage the Mexican government to respond militarily to the U.S. Reporting on all this was “Kit” Christopher Marlowe, newspaper journalist and son of an aging Hollywood actress.

Using a style made famous by Humphrey Bogart in ”Treasure of Sierra Madre” and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, this noir novel follows Kit as he digs for stories in the German connection. He ends up meeting Pancho Villa and falling for a beautiful and talented muchacha but the story only seems to be getting going when this episode ends. With so much political intrigue in Mexico in the early twentieth century, it’s ripe for novelistic exploitation. This series could live a long life.

I listened to the HighBridge audio of this book, read by Ray Chase. Chase does a wonderful job of speaking Chandler-ese with a Bogart swagger, and accelerating with the action so that some chapters of fighting and tension raced. The Kit character is a likeable one, but in the beginning his journalistic seen-it-all irony and sarcasm made it difficult for me to sympathize and identify with him. The story itself was intriguing enough to pull us along until we could see Kit’s other talents.

Kit’s other skills involve the other meaning of “Marlowe,” which would be a reference to the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe. He can fight and he can act, all of which he needs before the end of the novel. There is character development to spare here, which is why I imagine it to the first of a series. Olen Butler has chosen his area well, as it is underserved in the literary mystery series market and there is as much intrigue as in any major port during wartime.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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