In recent years, as thrillers have increasingly dominated the bestseller lists, more and more writers of the literary persuasion have tried their hands at this once-lowly genre, with mixed results. One of the most successful efforts was Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 romp, “Inherent Vice,” which related the misadventures of a stoned private eye in the 1960s.
Now comes Robert Olen Butler — who has published many well-received novels and short-story collections and won many literary prizes, including the 1993 Pulitzer for his collection “A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain” — with a very different but equally entertaining period piece set in the world of war and politics.
“The Hot Country” unfolds during a fascinating but now largely forgotten moment in American history. In April 1914, President Woodrow Wilson sent U.S. Marines to Veracruz after nine U.S. sailors were arrested by Mexican officials and paraded through the streets for allegedly entering off-limits territory. The sailors provided a useful pretext for the invasion, but there was a lot more going on south of the border just then, including civil war, German efforts to gain a foothold in the Americas and anticipation of a huge conflagration in Europe.
Butler tells his story through Christopher Marlowe (Kit) Cobb, a dashing, hard-drinking foreign correspondent for a Chicago newspaper. When Cobb arrives in Veracruz, the Marines are in command, but the reporter soon finds plenty of action. He flirts with a beautiful Mexican woman named Luisa who washes clothes in his hotel, but when she comes to his room one night, she unexpectedly puts a gun to his head. Luisa is a follower of the rebel commander Pancho Villa, but when she decides not to shoot the gringo, he naturally falls in love with her. There’s also a German warship in the harbor, reputedly carrying arms destined for Villa’s army, and when Cobb spots a sinister German with a dueling scar exiting the warship in the dead of night, he follows him to the German Consulate.
Cobb sets out by train to pursue the German inland, only to have the train stopped by a band of Villa’s soldiers. Once more it looks as if it’s curtains for the reporter, but he manages to join up with the Villistas. They are attacked by another band of rebels. He survives a bloody shootout, kills several of the attackers and eventually reaches Villa’s headquarters and meets the man himself. He by then knows that the German diplomat intends to offer Villa money and arms if he will invade the United States. Cobb must win Villa’s trust, overcome the German who intends to kill him and reach the United States alive to report the story of Kaiser Wilhelm’s dastardly scheme.
It’s an exciting story, much of it based on fact, and Butler has a good time with it. His writing is both crisp and thoughtful, his people ring true and he offers an amusing portrait of a golden age in journalism. Villa himself is a memorable character. An American soldier of fortune who is one of Villa’s lieutenants describes him thusly:
“What if a guy in my line of work had a chance to sign on with Napoleon? Villa fights like him. He takes advantage of his opponents fighting stiffly, by the book. He’s relentless and fast-moving and secretive. He’ll come at you at night and he won’t stop. . . . He didn’t even know how to read till a couple of years ago, when he insisted on learning, even though he was already the commander of ten thousand troops. That’s the guy you sign up with.”
Cobb’s meeting with Villa, who on a whim may embrace or kill him, is a highlight of the novel. Yet even as Cobb confronts such dangers, he’s also dealing with two women who are important to him. Luisa, the beautiful rebel, has made her way to Villa’s camp, where she soon needs his help. Meanwhile, Cobb agonizes about his mother, a onetime Shakespearean actress who has been reduced to singing in a New Orleans bordello.
“The Hot Country” is a thinking person’s thriller, the kind of exotic adventure that, in better days, would have been filmed by Sam Peckinpah. Failing that, Butler has promised us more derring-do ahead from the intrepid Kit Cobb.
Anderson reviews books regularly for The Washington Post.
THE HOT COUNTRY
By Robert Olen Butler
Mysterious Press. 326 pp. $25