The early years of the twentieth century were a time of extraordinary upheaval. In China, first the Boxer Rebellion, then the 1911 Chinese Revolution. In South Africa, the Second Boer War (1899-02) and, across the globe, the Philippine-American War (1899-02) that came on the heels of the Spanish-American War (1898). In Russia, the Revolutions of 1905 and 1917. The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5. The Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913. And the First World War, of course. Meanwhile, King Leopold’s minions were slaughtering millions in the Congo, and elsewhere in what we today call the Global South, conflict between indigenous populations and European colonialists was leading to the death of countless others.
Amidst the almost ceaseless violence that characterized this period, there was no event outside the borders of the United States that captured Americans’ attention before the World War more than the Mexican Revolution. During the events that unfolded from 1910 to 1920, many of the leading figures of the revolution became household words in the US: Porfirio Diaz, Francisco Madero, Victoriano Huerta, Venustiano Carranza, and of course Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa, the two most radical leaders of the insurgency.
The Hot Country (Christopher Marlowe Cobb #1) by Robert Olen Butler (2012) 352 pages @@@½ (3½ out of 5)
Not long before the United States entered World War I, our government invaded Mexico, occupying the Gulf port of Veracruz. And, in 1916, when Pancho Villa attacked the town of Columbus, New Mexico, the US sent an expeditionary force under General John J. Pershing to capture Villa. Pershing failed, succeeding only in sparking a short war with the government of Mexico, then under Carranza’s control.
American vs German spies in WWI Mexico
In The Hot Country, Robert Olen Butler sets his adventure tale against this explosive background. The story takes place in 1914. Butler’s protagonist, Christopher Marlowe Cobb, is a famous war correspondent for the Chicago Post-Express. His editor has dispatched him to Veracruz to cover the US invasion of Mexico. To Cobb’s chagrin, President Woodrow Wilson has commanded the troops simply to occupy Veracruz and proceed no farther. Cobb has a commitment to honest reporting (unlike many of his peers), a love of rough sex, and a passion for adventure. (“I was known to get nostalgic over the smell of cordite.”) He soon finds a way to become involved in action on his own, hooking up with an American spy, bedding Mexican women, facing off with a German agent sent to support Pancho Villa, partnering with an American soldier of fortune named Tallahassee Slim, flying across a desert in a Wright biplane, and enduring a close brush with death on more than one occasion in his dash across much of Mexico.
Both as historical fiction and as an adventure story, The Hot Country works well. But there’s a problem with this book. Butler is clearly in love with the word “and.” To convey a sense of breathlessness, he builds his action scenes with run-on sentences that tried my patience. Here, for example, is a singe sentence: “And I took off in a sprint, veering right, doing an end run around Villa and then curving back toward Mensinger at a sharp angle of approach, from off to his left, and he was slow even turning his face to me and I was almost upon him and I pulled up, raising my right arm, and I was swinging the sword as he lurched toward me off balance and he lifted his sword to parry and his saber and mind clanged between us and he stumbled away.” There is no excuse for such laziness.
For additional reading
I’ve also reviewed the second book in the Christopher Marlowe Cobb series, The Star of Istanbul, which you can find at An American spy in World War I takes on the German Empire.
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