Butler’s adventure tale full of history, humor

THE HOT COUNTRY

By Robert Olen Butler

The Mysterious Press, $25

For journalist Christopher Marlowe Cobb, the area around Vera Cruz, Mexico, really is The Hot Country — “Tierra Calinete” — in 1914. After a dustup involving some American sailors, President Woodrow Wilson orders U.S. forces to invade and occupy the city. Cobb, a Chicago reporter and seasoned war correspondent, is there to cover the action even though “uncover” might be a better way to describe what he does.

Butler, Pulitzer Prize winner and former resident of Lake Charles, has constructed a spy/action/romance tale with elements of a Western. If that seems an unlikely mix, just remember that Mexico in 1914 was still fractured from the 1910 revolution that brought strongman Franciso Madero to power, he was, in turn, overthrown in a coup led by Gen. Victoriano Heurta in 1913, aided by U.S. ambassador Henry Lane Wilson. When Woodrow Wilson took office, he replaced the ambassador and refused to recognize Heurta’s government. Germany supported Heurta, hoping to keep the U.S. out of Europe where war was about to begin.

Opposing Huerta was Venustiano Carranza, whom the U.S. secretly supported. To top it all off, the U.S. learned that a ship from Germany carrying illegal arms was docked in Vera Cruz. When Heurta arrested the American sailors on shore leave it was a convenient excuse to occupy the town and prevent the ship, the Ypiranga, from off-loading the arms. The whole of Mexico was in turmoil. Rebel generals like Emilio Zapata and Pancho Villa ran virtual fiefdoms in the Mexican countryside, robbing trains and conducting cavalry raids against opposing force, usually Heurta’s army. It wasn’t safe anywhere.

Butler uses this complicated backdrop to thrust his adventuring reporter into the action. Cobb arrives in April (World War I would begin in July) and takes up residence at a hotel in Vera Cruz while shots are still being fired. The American troops occupying the town, like troops in present Afghanistan, are preyed upon by Mexican snipers. Locals aren’t happy to see American forces in town. Cobb checks into his room and immediately encounters a striking young Mexican woman, Luisa Morales, who is going to take care of his laundry and, after a few drinks, Cobb makes a chauvinistic assumption typical of the time.

“Why don’t you come on in and we check out the crease in my pants,” he tells Luisa. She disappears.

“Right off, I had a surprisingly strong regret at this. Not just the missed opportunity. The whole breakdown. But I still had too much mezcal in me and the afternoon was too hot, and so I took my siesta,” Cobb observes.

Later, Cobb finds out that a priest was injured by a very accurate sniper who is a woman. He thinks of Luisa. She’s not gone from the story. First, however, there’s that ship full of munitions out in the harbor. Cobb pays a street urchin to watch the Ypiranga for him. When a tall German with a fencing scar on his cheek leaves the ship at night under a cloak of secrecy, Cobb finds out all about it and tails him to the German embassy. Doing some snooping — and maybe you think reporters never break the law in pursuit of a big story but you’d be wrong about that — Cobb gets ahold of the German’s wallet, figures out who he is and where he is going.

The German is an agent of his government sent to make contact with Pancho Villa and try to bribe him into attacking the U.S. Cobb decides to follow.

What ensues is a train journey, spies, murder, fighting, a kidnapping, a gun battle at a remote hacienda, a trip into Villa’s camp and the scoop of Cobb’s life. Oh yes, Cobb finds out where Luisa is.

The first-person voice makes the tale seem immediate, even though it is told in past tense. It’s a rollicking good adventure with some real tension and an insistent pace. It’s not a love story, but there are strong romantic elements in it. This book appears to be meant to be the first of a series of crime/intrigue novels featuring the estimable Cobb. It seems clear that Butler is laying down backstory for readers when he describes Cobb’s mother, Cobb’s upbringing and his adventure around the world (including New Orleans) before his Mexican trip and at the same time he also sets up possibilities for future Cobb adventures.

Butler gives his hero a Hemingwayesque sidekick, an alcoholic former writer named Bunky who is now a photographer. Bunky plays a pretty small role in the book, though, and is not present during any of the key action outside Vera Cruz. At times the story is reminiscent of Edgar Rice Burrough’s adventure books, but Butler is a much more accomplished writer than Burroughs was. Butler also has a sense of humor and pokes fun at journalists and authors who use three names: “I think they make themselves sound pompous and full of self-importance,” Cobb observes.

Butler has already established himself as one of America’s finest writers. The Hot Country will only add to his stature and whet readers’ appetites for sequels.