In 2004, the Pulitzer-winning novelist Robert Olen Butler wrote a hard-boiled short story for the Atlantic about a journalist in Mexico in 1914. It was a canny mix of high and low — a "literary" author taking a detour into historical espionage fiction, complete with gunplay and a femme fatale. But Butler wasn't slumming. He since has written three novels around the character, the third of which, "The Empire of Night," is a smart and layered yarn, proving — sometimes a bit strenuously — that he takes the genre seriously.
Butler's hero is Christopher "Kit" Marlowe Cobb, a journalist spying for the U.S. government before its entry into World War I. The gig has taken him to Mexico (2012's "The Hot Country") and nearly sank him along with the Lusitania (last year's "The Star of Istanbul"). This time he's in England, where he's keeping an eye on Sir Albert Stockman, a member of Parliament who is helping Germany plan zeppelin bombing runs in London.
Assisting Kit is his mother, a Shakespearean actress who is also a spy charged with getting close to Stockman — although Kit would rather not consider how close, or through what methods. This seems like a comic setup — a throwback "Archer" episode — but Butler depicts this filial predicament with charm and sensitivity. A scene in which Mom makes him a stage-makeup disguise subtly reveals the anxiety Kit feels about their roles: "She'd made me into someone else. A half brother she birthed in some dressing room somewhere along the circuit before I was born and she gave it away."
That intimate moment also hints at the layers of role playing within the novel: Kit is a spy playing a pro-U.S. journalist playing a pro-German journalist who ultimately plays a German officer to infiltrate the zeppelin plot. The spies and soldiers who surround him have similarly cloaked intentions. This tangles the storytelling — and in the case of Kit's mother's relationship with Stockman, it's not entirely convincing. But the broader plot is propulsive reading, and Butler has developed a knack for snapping off taut, Hammett-esque sentences at tense moments, particularly during a climactic zeppelin scene.
Butler is determined to show that genre fiction can be intellectually rich — Kit has the name of an Elizabethan playwright; his mom is playing Hamlet, and Albert Einstein makes a brief cameo. At times this all feels as if Butler doth protest too much. But he writes thoughtfully and wittily about the way all this playacting can start to chisel away at one's identity. When Kit cautions his mother that "we need to talk in our actual selves," she saltily replies, "And what are those, exactly?"
Mark Athitakis is a reviewer in Phoenix.