Espionage has been dubbed “The World’s Second Oldest Profession.” In the world of fiction, the spy genre has demonstrated that it is a staple in literature and cinema. Spy fiction targets the allure of intrigue and recognizes a public fascination with duplicity. It is a genre rooted in history that can choose to play fast and loose with facts. Ranging from methodical and thought-provoking to sheer whimsy, espionage fiction transports us from the ennui of the mundane into a shadowy world of clandestine activity. In my “Passport to Espionage” columns I will be delving into works from the printed page and onscreen; please join me in a bit of cloak and dagger swagger. To begin, let us travel back to 1915, when Zeppelins were used for warfare and play an integral part in The Empire of the Night, written by Robert Olen Butler.
The novel is narrated by Christopher “Kit” Marlowe Cobb, an American war correspondent. Cobb’s journalistic personas give him cover and mobility to perform his work as a clandestine government secret agent. He is also well-suited for the spying game by lineage: his mother is renowned actress Isabel Cobb, and Christopher has learned aspects of the art of deception by observing her onstage as well as off. The unconventional upbringing in the theatre made Christopher very adaptable, but he still had difficulty contending with his mother’s many romances and her seemingly mercurial personality. Despite years of scrutinizing Isabel, Christopher cannot get a handle on her illusive psyche. She is simply too good an actress. Things proceed to get dicey when Isabel is recruited onto Christopher’s latest mission.
While there is no underlying Freudian kinkiness like in The Manchurian Candidate, the relationship between son and mother has many complicated layers. In the most basic sense, it is an illustration that we all wear masks and have private aspects that are unfathomable even to those close to us. This, of course, is intrinsic in the development of characters in spy fiction, where life is metaphorically an incredibly high stakes card game in which the players bluff and are leery of tipping their hands. But beyond the obvious orchestrated feigning and deception inherent in the great game of espionage, there is the quandary of emotional attachment. It can unhinge a carefully designed operation. That risk is omnipresent. In this novel the bonds of blood ties, be they personal or cultural, are factors that fiercely motivate the characters.
Cloaked in a highly labyrinthine plot, The Empire of the Night probes what formulates and then cements an affiliation; be it with country or ideology or kin. The Brits, through the ancestry of the royal family, have a biological connection to Germany. For some British citizens that amounted to a kinship of sorts, providing a rationalization for a sentiment that was not uncommon during both World Wars. This stance is rather striking during the First World War, a time when German Zeppelins were routinely dropping bombs on British soil. In the novel, there is a plot to make the aerial attacks more insidious by emitting poisonous gas over London’s theatre district. Sir Albert Stockman, the man who devises the dastardly scheme, is a member of Britain’s parliament whose activities have already caused him to be flagged as a possible traitor.
Stockman becomes besotted with actress Isabel and she is subsequently planted as a spy to observe him. Despite the danger and geopolitical ramifications, Isabel becomes equally enamored of the suspected mole. As an undercover lover she is conflicted, with subjectivity battling the facts presented to her by Christopher. Loyalty is a pliable commodity when affairs of the heart are concerned. Now in her 50s, Isabel is no longer accepted by the drama critics as viable in dewy leading lady roles. And despite receiving praise for tackling the title role in a touring production of Hamlet, her ego still suffered a blow. The reluctantly aging actress more than ever craves a romantic entanglement for psychological sustenance. In a passage in which he is trying to read his mother’s facial expression, Christopher surmises:
“This was the face of a woman who would hold very tightly to a man of skills and looks whose love she had lately won, having feared never to find such a man again.
Having sorted through a lifetime of such men.
And she held all the more tightly to this one because he was also a man of great means, a man of significant power, a strewer of roses.
He was, however, also an aspiring mass killer.”
Complex characters and intricate allegiances are prevalent throughout the narrative. A couple of notable scientists from history have been expertly placed in the plot: Albert Einstein and Fritz Haber. Haber was given the epithet of “The Father of Chemical Warfare” because of his work developing poisonous gases for German use during World War I. He justified the moral implications of his work by saying “Death is death no matter how it is inflicted” and maintained that “In peace-time a scientist belongs to humanity, in war-time to his fatherland.” The latter sentiment proved pertinent since in 1918, one year after the war’s end, Haber received the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his co-invention of the Haber-Bosch process which facilitated the manufacturing of ammonia on an industrial level. The method eventually became primarily used for the mass production of agricultural fertilizer, but during the First World War elements of it were employed as resources in the construction of explosives. To sum up the irony, Haber’s findings were geared towards the destruction of the perceived enemy during the war. After the war ended, his discovery was implemented to save many lives from starvation.
The Empire of the Night is infused with vibrant descriptions of surroundings, apparel, tastes, and smells that convey narrator Christopher’s perceptiveness as a journalist—and a spy. The novel is the third in the Christopher Marlowe Cobb series. I have not read the first or the fourth (the most recent), but that did not detract from my reading pleasure or create any confusion. Based on my experience with half of the oeuvre, the books can be thoroughly enjoyed as standalones.
Author Robert Olen Butler is an interesting fellow in his own right and noticeably shares a couple of similarities with his protagonist. Like Cobb, there is a family connection to theater: Butler’s father was an actor and theater professor and Robert himself has university degrees in theater and playwrighting. Butler also analogously served his country in a covert manner; during part of his war service in Vietnam, he was an Army counter-intelligence agent. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for his short story collection A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain and in 2013 was the recipient of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Award for Outstanding Achievement in American Literature.
The next installment in the “Passport to Espionage” column will venture into cinema. Spies on film run the gamut from the seedy/cerebral (such as the Harry Palmer series) to the comedic (Austin Powers, for example) to the glamorous (James Bond and his ilk.) And let us not forget an array of kick-ass female operatives and brainy femme fatales. I hope all your travel documents are in order, and that you will journey along with me in subsequent surveillance investigations into the domain of secret agents.