7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler certainly knows how to turn a phase, and he also does superb characterizations.
What's more, this is hardly the typical "swashbuckling thriller". It is more the "thinking mans Historical Investigative Reporter".
Christopher Marlowe Cobb ("Kit") is handsome, brave, and intelligent, and certainly able to hold his own in a back-alley brawl. But he's no James Bond. Readers looking for over the top "Perils of Pauline" type action thrillers should look elsewhere. Clive Cussler he ain't.
Which, even tho I enjoy an occasional action thriller by Cussler- is a Good Thing.
The novel also hits upon a little known and very misunderstood period of American history, what with Pancho Villa, the Mexican Revolution, and the runn-up to WWI.
Very well written.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Robert Olen Butler returns Pancho Villa to life as a supporting character in his latest novel. The Hot Country follows a literary path marked by Graham Greene (among others) -- within the trappings of a thriller, the author undertakes a deeper study of human nature. The "hot" country is Mexico in 1914: hot because of its climate, because it is a hotbed of revolution, because its women are passionate. The result is entertaining but not as compelling as Greene's best novels -- or Butler's.
On the day when the United States begins its military occupation of Vera Cruz, a news photographer snaps a picture of Christopher "Kit" Cobb, a reporter for a Chicago newspaper, standing near two dead Mexican snipers. The story jumps ahead a few weeks as Cobb gazes at the photograph in his editor's office, remembering the woman in the picture, Luisa Morales. It then moves back in time to the day Cobb met Luisa, shortly before the Marines arrived in Vera Cruz. The remainder of the novel covers the time that passes between the day of the invasion and the day Cobb returns to Chicago, then moves forward another few days.
Cobb is intrigued by Luisa, even as he comes to suspect her as the sniper in nonfatal shootings of a Mexican priest, a city official who is cooperating with the Americans, and an American Marine. While he wants to pursue the story of the shootings, he's also intrigued by the tall scarred German he sees sneaking ashore from the Ypiranga, a German steamer. During most of that novel, Cobb is chasing a dangerous story that focuses on the scarred man, Friedrich von Mensinger, a representative of Germany who wants to persuade Pancho Villa to launch a counterattack against American forces.
Butler avoids the improbable shootouts and one-against-five martial arts battles that are commonplace in ordinary thrillers. There is a knife fight, there is a gunfight, there's even a sword fight, but they are realistic -- they always convey the sense that Cobb's life is at risk. Most of the time, Butler creates tension with more subtlety: using a fake passport on a train, Cobb must persuade the Federales that he is a German; searching through Mensinger's saddlebags for hidden documents, Cobb is hyperaware of the sounds that signal danger.
Still, in his attempt to meld a literary novel and a thriller, Butler doesn't fully succeed in the creation of either one. The final scene in Mexico is enjoyable but unconvincing, while the novel's final scene (a revelation about Cobb's mother) is from well beyond left field. Key characters have the feel of stereotypes: an embittered news photographer who stopped writing (and started drinking) as a protest against censorship; an American mercenary who has signed on to support Pancho Villa's cause. We spend too little time getting to know Luisa and Mensinger and Villa. Although Cobb could have stepped out of a Graham Greene novel, Butler doesn't quite capture the tortured soul that makes Greene's central characters so memorable.
This is not to say that Cobb is the empty shell that so often characterizes a thriller hero. Cobb describes himself as "a gringo with imperialist politics and moral indifference," a self-definition he will eventually test. Cobb's relationships with women -- his mother, Luisa, the washer girl who replaces Luisa -- are both complex and superficial. His attempts to communicate with them are muddled; he either fails to speak from his heart or does so at the wrong time.
Butler toughened his prose for this novel without sacrificing its customary elegance. He fills the book with atmosphere, making the reader hears the sounds of war, smell "the complex body-and-equipment stink of fighting men in the field," taste the sourness of pulque. My only gripe is that during The Hot Country's action sequences, Butler uses run-on sentences to convey Cobb's rush of adrenalin. It is a technique that should be used sparingly, if at all, and one in which Butler overindulges. In all other respects, the prose is stirring, well-suited for a literary thriller. If I could, I would give the Hot Country 4 1/2 stars.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Our hero, Christopher "Kit" Marlowe Cobb, a world traveling reporter, tells his own story in this mystery set in the Mexico of a century ago. What is interesting, and maddening, is that the reporter tells his story as a novelist with a thesaurus close at hand rather than as a reporter trained to get to the point.
The over descriptive, over long sentences slow down this "adventure" novel to a pace normally found in novels written by Eastern European novelists. While those have their place, and I often enjoy reading them, that doesn't fit the subject of this book by Robert Olen Butler.
Kit seems to see himself as a Hemingway type of guy before Hemingway really made the scene. He tries to be macho with the ladies and hides behind trees from the guys. He is supposedly world wise but is too dense too often about what's going on around him. Imagine knowing you are being watched; making a point of it, then forgetting to go back to it as the story goes on. That's bad enough, but the other person sitting there notices the same thing and also ignores it. Not likely in a mystery/adventure/spy novel. In fact, I nearly threw the book across the room at page 108 when more stuff just plain failed to make any sense at all.
Interspersed through the book, Christopher "Kit" Marlowe Cobb reveals some things about his mother that makes for some of the more interesting moments in the story. Unfortunately, too few of the pages are about her. Perhaps Butler chose the wrong family member to write a story. Or, maybe neither should have.
Far too often, the author makes use of that great literary gimmick of "coincidence" to move things along. For example, it seems that one person can be in two places at the same time. Since many authors use this device, it's particularly interesting that people had that ability in the pre-atomic age of a century ago.
Each such shortcut adds to a reader's tally of reasons to stop turning the pages until it reaches point where the book closes for the last time unfinished. While this on did not get to that tipping point, it came closer than I would have wished.
Amazingly (remember my reference to page 108?), at about page 216, and some pages following, I was reminded of the westerns of my youth. They were the type that made sure the stars never got killed, were able to fire thirty bullets from a six-shooter, and they always got the girls even though the audience were never shown what they actually did with them once they had them. In this instance, our hero, Christopher "Kit" Marlowe Cobb, becomes someone totally different in order for this book to get to page 217 and the sequel(s) to be published.
I am, at that point, not looking forward to page 324 (I looked ahead and my ARC edition has 326 pages.) When I reached that third multiple of 108, I was disappointed that I hadn't been disappointed. The last sentence on page 324 sealed the deal that I definitely will not read the next in the series.
One star is mandatory. Another for the history, the girls, and setting. The third because some of the other side characters were far more interesting than Christopher "Kit" Marlowe Cobb.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Picture this: It's the spring of 1914. Christopher Marlowe "Kit" Cobb, a reporter for a Chicago newspaper, is sent to the Gulf of Mexico port city of Vera Cruz to cover the invasion of Mexico that had been ordered by President Woodrow Wilson.
That is the basic plot behind The Hot Country, a historical fiction tale by author Robert Olen Butler, a Pulitzer Prize winner. And though the author skillfully paints a scenic picture of the area and the times, this is no travelogue or Baedeker guide of the region. Victoriano Huerta, known by many as El Chacal (The Jackal) was the Mexican president, and the country was involved in a bloody civil war. Mexican revolutionary leader Pancho Villa had joined the rebellion against Huerta, and the activist was being supplied arms from the US.
World War I (the "Great War") has yet to begin, and Germany has a major presence in the port city, which includes a consulate that Kit Cobb, along with many of the other journalists, considers to be a virtual nest of spies. Kit had met Luisa Morales shortly before the Marines arrived in Vera Cruz, a lively señorita with whom he becomes quite intrigued. When a German ship appears in the Vera Cruz harbor, Kit hires a petty thief to keep a watchful eye on the ship. Cobb tells his tale as a first-person narrative, which adds to the reading of this tale.
A strange and somewhat mysterious German official gets off of the ship, and Cobb becomes curious as to what he might be up to. Our intrepid reporter begins to suspect Luisa as the sniper in the non-fatal shootings of a Mexican priest, an official who is collaborating with the Americans, and an American Marine.
We find an occasionally lethargic plot, stereotypes, minutiae that can slow things down, and run-on sentences that will leave the reader wondering where this story is going. But we also find a compelling atmosphere, an excitement that builds, a spunky señorita, political intrigue, cross (and double-cross), espionage, along with a mystery. As might be expected, author Butler has an expansive and unreserved vocabulary, which adds to the enjoyment of reading this tale.
Author Butler is a skilled craftsman when it comes to building a scenario, and for this reader, it was an enjoyable read. He has obviously researched the time and locations quite well, and it shows in this interesting new work. I was already somewhat familiar with the author from his previous works, such as his often-hilarious 1996 collection Tabloid Dreams, which came from the titles of bizarre articles in the supermarket tabloids. His 1993 Pulitzer Prize winning short-story collection A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain was a title that I had indulged in the pleasure of reading years ago. Both of these have recently been re-released.
The Hot Country had this reader fluctuating for awhile. The story started as quite interesting, with enough of a background to make it good, as author Butler is a skilled literary stylist. There were points where it dipped as a result of the run-on sentences, but in retrospect they add to the human element of the narrative, which add up to make this an engrossing read, and as it appears to be listed as a "Christopher Marlowe Cobb Thriller," I am looking forward to the next one. It's sluggish in places, but the story develops gradually and methodically, a slow sizzle that builds.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on October 17, 2012
Most Amazon reviewers have rated this highly. They are on its wavelength and respond to something I've missed. I found it lethargic and bland. The writing is devoid of color and punch. The story is episodic but relies too much on the narrator's long distance involvements with his mother and the mystery woman/sniper/temptress/firebrand who opens the plot and then disappears and pops back later. I couldn't connect with the journalist narrator and the drama of German intrusion into the Mexican revolutionary war limps along except for some fairly interesting action episodes that include Pancho Villa.
There are too many sentences in need of an editor. Typical is "A low Spanish murmuring ruffled through the car and I looked at my fellow first-class travelers. They all seemed to be Mexicans, well-dressed ones." It's all written in a flat tone and veers close to the clumsy. "They took their time, but two figures finally appeared halfway down the pier and I put my binoculars on them. The sight of them startled me." There's nothing wrong with these but not much right either and after a hundred pages the novel feels too bogged down by the flat tone.
It also doesn't bring Mexico and the 1914 civil war alive, nor the US invasion of Santa Cruz, for me, at least. It has the sense of a writer trying to produce a period piece in a style that is not innate to him. Mr. Butler has a distinguished record as a novelist and I see this as somewhat of an experiment -- his first "mystery" and the effort to create a character on which to build a series.
I don't recommend the novel. I find it hard to say much about it. But, many people like it and I respect their judgements. It isn't for me and I suspect it will be hard going for other readers.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
This period thriller is set in turn of the 20th century Mexico. A Chicago reporter goes to Vera Cruz, Mexico, falls in love with a laundress Luisa and then suspects her to be the shooter of a Mexican priest and while trying to find that he also starts chasing Friedrich von Mensinger, German to find out what are the Germans up to.
The novel is in literary style and sometimes gets longwinded about the atmospherics which stops it from being a page turner.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
For me the setting of this story is most of the story. There are actual characters and made-up characters that deal with events that were leading up to WWI. As it turns out and I had not known, a port city in Mexico is a significant location at this time. The story made me feel a little like I was there at that time.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Okay. I really did not take to this book at first. I was finishing another, by Janny Wurts, and no author compares to Janny Wurts. When I was finished, I picked up Robert Olen Butler's The Hot Country again. The first few pages I had read had stuck with me, and I found I did not have to re-read them, which I took as a positive sign. He had set the stage in those first few pages for what turned out to be a rousing good read.
The story takes place in the spring of 1914, before the guns of August changed the world. Christopher Marlow Cobb is a reporter from Chicago who is in Vera Cruz covering the American occupation of that port city. Beyond the confines of the city, Pancho Villa, Zapata, and Victoriano Huerta, struggle for control of Mexico.
Cobb, good reporter that he is, finds himself enmeshed in a German scheme to provide arms to one of the Mexican factions. Told first person, Cobb relates his adventures in a very matter of fact fashion. There are only a few characters and they are all brilliantly drawn, from Luisa the Mexican laundress to Diego the petty thief to the very Prussian officer who has drawn Cobb's eye.
I titled this review Mexican Noir because I was reminded of the Berlin Noir I enjoy so much, only the reporter is not in Berlin on the eve of war, but in Vera Cruz on the eve of war, and though he is not in the thick of the action, he is close enough to be sucked into its vortex if he missteps. Cobb, like those protagonists a generation later, is such a man, competent, intelligent, and unafraid of involving himself in the story he should be reporting.
The pre-war period is realistically drawn. We are drawn into a world where airplanes are new and fragile, where trains, not automobiles, provide the major mode of transportation. Horses are far from obsolete, and sabers still have their place. We meet characters out of history, as carefully drawn as Cobb himself, who is all the more real for his many faults and foibles.
Most compelling of all is how Butler describes the action, in long paragraphs without sentences, a sort of stream of thought prose that draws you into the action even as it draws the action out - he did this and I did that and he was doing this and I was thinking that and... It's quite clever, and it works brilliantly, because, of course, action has no periods, no stops. Action is fluid. It does not take place in steps or stages, or as role playing games would have it, phases.
So I enjoyed The Hot Country a great deal, enough to give it five stars. I highly recommend you read it if you like Berlin Noir and want a break, a detour to where the sun shines and bandits take the place of stormtroopers. This is the first book by Butler that I have read, but I will certainly read him again, though I do hope he does more of this type of thing. There is a place for it, if only because it is such a rare thing he has done.
Thank you, Mr. Butler. Thank you for those first few sentences that lingered in my head and drew me back. It turns out he does compare to Janny Wurts, but not because he is so like her in his writing, but because he is so different.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Christopher "Kit" Marlowe Cobb is a seasoned war correspondent stationed in Vera Cruz, Mexico when the United States army invades and takes over the city, but goes no further. A suspicious ship sits in the harbor, observing, and Kit knows he's got the makings of a good story when a mysterious German, Freidrich Mensinger, comes ashore in the dead of night. He also becomes fascinated with Luisa, the woman who washes his clothes, when it becomes apparent she's a very good sniper, but then she disappears. When his informant, a young pickpocket, is nearly murdered by another German after spying on Mensinger, Kit knows the German is the key to everything. He follows the man out of town when it seems he's about to meet with Pancho Villa, but even Kit is shocked when he finds the man's true mission in Mexico.
This book unfolds at an easy pace, but is packed with suspense, tension, and action. I wasn't a huge fan of the run-on sentences filled with every tiny movement in the action sequences, but it was a small point of detraction. The story was well-woven, and the characters compelling, particularly Kit's mother, whom we don't even meet until the end of the novel. Kit in particular was a likeable character, a very good thing, as the story was written in first person. The author did a great job of describing the heat and the smells of Mexico in 1914, complete with asides on the discomforts dangers of train travel. The suspense was well done, with Kit learning bits and pieces as he gets closer and closer to his quarry, before he finally gets the information he needs, at great risk to his personal safety.
The ending was just a little too pat for my taste, but in all, this was a very enjoyable novel that moved along and kept my interest. I would read another Kit Cobb adventure.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on November 5, 2012
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 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