Readers probably are more familiar with Christopher Marlowe, the Elizabethan dramatist, than they are with Christopher Marlowe Cobb.
The latter is a fictional newspaper reporter of national acclaim for a New York City daily in the second decade of the 20th century and the protagonist of Robert Olen Butler’s “The Star of Istanbul.”
Cobb —“Kit” to close friends — isn’t just a reporter.
He’s also an occasional agent for the U.S. government.
We meet him as he is preparing to board the Lusitania, a Cunard luxury liner best known for having been sunk by a German submarine about a dozen miles off the coast of Ireland on May 7, 1915. More than 100 Americans were among the lost, but Cobb survived.
This wouldn’t be much of a story if he had died, but the author’s account of the sinking is quite a story.
For purposes of the novel, other survivors of note were Selene Bourgani, a beautiful, mysterious actress of silent movie renown; Charles Brauer, a German with U.S. citizenship whom Cobb is assigned to follow; and Brauer’s lover, Edward Cable.
Selena, who becomes close enough to Cobb to call him Kit, isn’t just a movie star.
She, too, is on a mission and is working with Brauer.
Brauer’s assignment is to ensure that Selena gets to Constantinople and is served up to the most powerful man in the Ottoman Empire, Enver Pasha, who is smitten from afar with the actress.
That, the Kaiser apparently believes, will enhance the relationship between the German and Ottoman empires and set the stage for victory in the war — before the United States is angry or fed up enough to get directly involved.
Cobb doesn’t take to Brauer, but he has a soft spot for Selena.
He follows both Brauer and Selena in London, but he doesn’t fool the Germans into believing he’s simply a reporter.
Violence and intrigue ensue, Cobb survives a couple close calls, and the principal characters board another ship for the coast of Europe.
Before reaching it, Brauer dies — at Selena’s hands.
Cobb tosses Brauer’s body overboard, in part to gain her trust in order to dissuade her from continuing with her plan.
On the train journey across Europe, Cobb learns more about this actress, including the obvious: that she has been playing multiple roles with him.
When he finally realizes where she is from and her true background — her bogus movie biography had only added to her allure — he realizes why she wants to meet Enver Pasha.
The author has concocted quite an adventure, one that takes place during a time and in places few Americans give much thought to. Cobb is a bit larger than life, which makes him less credible, but he’s also likeable enough that readers aren’t likely to mind.
He’s a recurring character in Butler’s novels,
The author knows his craft.
He received the 2013 F. Scott Fitzgerald Award for Outstanding Achievement in American Literature as well as other honors, has written numerous novels and nonfiction books and teaches creative writing at Florida State University.
Walt Braun is the Mercury’s editorial page editor.