Published by No Exit Press
Available in ebook, hardback and paperback (25 October 2018)
My thanks to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for the invitation to take part in the blog tour for Paris in the Dark. For my turn, I have an extract to share.
| About the Book |
Autumn 1915. The First World War is raging across Europe. Woodrow Wilson has kept Americans out of the trenches, although that hasn’t stopped young men and women from crossing the Atlantic to volunteer at the front. Christopher Marlowe ‘Kit’ Cobb, a Chicago reporter and undercover agent for the US government is in Paris when he meets an enigmatic nurse called Louise. Officially in the city for a story about American ambulance drivers, Cobb is grateful for the opportunity to get to know her but soon his intelligence handler, James Polk Trask, extends his mission.
In the dark above Paris, in the deep autumn of 1915, there were always the Nieuports flying their patterns, like sentries walking a perimeter. The new, svelte Model 11 – called Bébé by its pilots – operated above the high-flying Zeppelins, poised to drop on them in a column of searchlight if the Zepps got by the guns at the French forts to the east.
On a November night I sat beneath the Nieuports at a table outside the Café de la Rotonde. The weather had been unpredictable. It snowed last week but tonight it was almost mild. It might as well have been April and that hammering of engine pistons up above might as was well have been French worker bees going after chestnut blossoms.
My drink was a Bijou – the greenery taste of the chartreuse fitting right in with the bees in the night – and I was surrounded by people I couldn’t actually see, just vague shapes and spots of cigarette flame. But I knew who they were, the assorted male denizens of the Left Bank. Artists and professors; students furloughed for six days from Hell; students furloughed for good by a stump of an arm or an empty pants leg; the old, the infirm, the foreigners.
The conversations – at turns hopeful, fearful, or miffed – had been low, as if the Zepps would hear us, and I’d sat away from them, near the street. I had my own brooding and ranting to do, which I kept to myself.
But now a voice rang clearly in the dark.
‘Monsieur. You will like one Bijou more?’
I looked up at the shadow hovering above me. He’d spoken in English but wallowing the words in his mouth as the French do. He was old enough to have grandsons in the trenches.
‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘That is just what I need.’
I’d replied in French. My French was pretty good. My actress mother, who took on my education in all subjects, knew French well from playing Racine and Corneille in her two long, triumphant tours of the Continent in the mid-Nineties. And from a beau or two of hers along the way.
Before the waiter moved off, I said, ‘Henri, isn’t it?’
‘Yes that is me,’ he said. ‘Have I forgotten you, to my shame?’ He was speaking French to me now.
‘Ah no,’ I said. ‘I heard someone address you.’
‘Thank you,’ he said.
I said, ‘I always like to know the name of the man who will help me become more or less drunk.’
Henri laughed a faintly suppressed laugh.
‘I’m Kit Cobb,’ I said.
‘Monsieur Cobb. You are American, yes?’
‘Yes I am.’
‘You are here.’ He paused. I grew up in the theater. I knew how to hear subtext. Here meaning Paris. Meaning Paris deep into the Great War. His silence said: Though your countrymen are not. Then he finished formally, courteously. ‘I am grateful to you.’
Plenty of us will be here,’ I said, addressing the thing he’d left unsaid. ‘To fight. The day is coming.’
He lowered his voice. ‘There are too many professors.’
I shot him a smile, though I doubted he could see it. He knew his clientele here amidst the universities of Paris on the Left Bank.
And he knew our American president.
‘I share your distaste,’ I said. Then, so he knew I knew what he was really saying, I added, ‘For Professor Wilson.’
He chuckled, and I could even make out his shrug. ‘But still your countrymen will come?’ he asked.
‘I pray it will be in time.’
‘So do I.’
‘And you, sir? What do you do in Paris?’
Ah, how to answer that.
I was a reporter. A war correspondent. But hobbled, thanks to Henri’s government. And part-time, thanks to mine. I was also a spy.
But I said something that surprised Henri, and surprised me too: Je suis poilu. I did not know how to explain other than to lift my arm and tap myself on the heart. I hoped he could see the gesture. I am a poilu.
The public – everyone in France – called the French infantryman le poilu. The hairy man. As a reporter of wars, I’d known a great many hairy men under various flags in my life.
He did see the gesture. Or he already understood. ‘We must all be poilu,’ he said.
‘Yes,’ I said. Emphatically. Bien oui. ‘Your boys will hold on. I am sure of this.’
‘Vive la France,’ Henri said, almost in a whisper.
I said it too, and as I did, I realized that he’d whispered so his voice would not crack from emotion.
He was gone.
| About the Author |
Robert Olen Butler is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of seventeen novels, including Hell, A Small Hotel, Perfume River, and the Christopher Marlowe Cobb series. He is also the author of six short story collections and a book on the creative process, From Where You Dream. He has twice won a National Magazine Award in Fiction and received the 2013 F. Scott Fitzgerald Award for Outstanding Achievement in American Literature. He teaches creative writing at Florida State University.