Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Some novels and series are at least as much literary fiction as they are crime and mystery fiction. In those cases, we don’t just read the story of a crime and its investigation. We also get a close look at life in a certain place among certain people. Many literary crime novels also explore themes, sometimes at greater length and in more depth than you might see in a ‘purely’ (Is there such a thing?) crime novel. Such a series is Leonardo Padura’s Mario Conde series, so let’s turn the spotlight on one of those novels today. Let’s focus on Havana Red, the third novel in this Havana Quartet.
Mario Conde is a Havana police detective who’s been ‘sidelined’ to the Information Bureau at Police Headquarters. The official reason is that Internal Affairs is investigating an incident in which he had a very public dust-up with Lieutenant Fabricio. There are hints that more is at stake than that.
During the full heat of the summer of 1989, Conde’s ‘exile’ is temporarily ended when his boss, Major Antonio Rangel, assigns him to a new case. The body of a man dressed in a woman’s red dress has been found in Havana Park. At first, it seems like a not-very-surprising hate crime against a transvestite. But there’s more to this case than that. For one thing, the victim turns out to be Alexis Arayán, son of powerful and well-connected diplomat Faustino Arayán. So the investigation will have to be quiet and careful, and the family will need to be protected from publicity. For another thing, it’s not immediately clear whether this is a murder or a suicide.
If it is a suicide, it wouldn’t be shocking. Some evidence suggests that the victim was contemplating taking his own life. And in Havana at that time, being homosexual, especially in such an obvious way, carries terrible social consequences. Arayán wouldn’t be the first to succumb to the urge to give up on life.
Conde begins by talking to those closest to the victim: his family members and friends. From them he gradually develops a portrait of the dead man. He also narrows down possible leads as to how and why he died. One possibility, of course, is that it was the hate crime it seems on the surface. Another is that it is connected to the Catholic Feast of the Transformation, which took place on the day of his death. There’s also the connections that Arayán had with the Havana arts community, in particular the Centre for Cultural Heritage. There are avenues there to be explored, too.
In the meantime, the internal investigation at the police department has widened in scope; several people are now in the proverbial crosshairs. So Conde has to deal with that disruption as well as with the murder investigation. And there’s a very real chance that he could be specifically targeted. That could have dire consequences for him. In the end, though, he gets to the truth about Alexis Arayán’s murder.
As I mentioned, this is as much a literary novel as anything else. In it, Padura explores several themes. One of them is of course bigotry and homophobia, and their impact on people. Conde himself confronts and struggles with his own prejudice as the story goes on; it isn’t always a winning battle for him, but he does at least admit his bias. There’s also bias on a larger scale, as we learn about the Cuban government’s views of homosexuals, at least during that era.
Another theme is arguably hypocrisy. At the same time as homophobia and anti-gay rhetoric (and worse) are common, there are plenty of people who have secret gay relationships. At the same time as people are urged to
‘‘…purify myself by contact with the working class,’’
and forgo luxury, those in power have access to fine houses, the best food, wine and cigars, and so on. So there is real cynicism about the government’s aims.
We also get a close look at life in Havana during the late 1980s. With the advent of Soviet policies such as glasnost and perestroika, there is a slightly more open attitude towards capitalism and towards more open communication with the US and its allies. Still, the Cuban government remains firmly Communist and firmly in control of the press, the arts and so on. All of this impacts daily life in Cuba. It’s a place where things like coffee are rationed, and where housing is hard to find unless you happen to have a lot of money. It’s also a place where saying the wrong thing can still get you in trouble, despite the slight relaxation of government policies.
And yet, it’s not an entirely dismal place. Even in the heat, it’s visually beautiful, and life goes on there and even goes well. There are friendships, birthdays, love affairs, and all the rest of the stuff of life. Despite the sometimes very unpleasant undercurrent, there isn’t a sense of complete bleakness.
Through it all moves Mario Conde, who is, as his creator has said,
‘…a metaphor, not a policeman.’
He represents the ordinary Havana man trying to negotiate his life as the city he remembers from his youth moves towards the end of the 20th Century. The story is told in third person, from his point of view, so we follow along as he lives his life. This perspective allows Padura to hold up a mirror to the society of that time.
The pace of the story is unhurried, as the story focuses on everyday life as much as it does the mystery. Readers who prefer a fast pace and a focus only on the case at hand will notice this. Readers will also notice that the novel isn’t really linear. There are several places where we learn about the past experiences of various characters, including Conde. They are presented as reminiscences, rather than separate chapters or sections. This also impacts the pace of the story, as does the narrative description. Readers who enjoy descriptive detail will be pleased.
Conde arrives at the solution to the mystery through evidence, through interviews, and through his own deductions. And the truth he finds is reflective of the society in which he lives. So is the character of the sleuth who discovers it.
Havana Red is a literary journey through Havana in the hot summer of 1989. That journey’s focus is a case of murder, but it’s by no means limited to that. It features a detective who is quintessentially Cuban, and takes place at a time of great change in the country. But what’s your view? Have you read Havana Red? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 12 October/Tuesday 13 October – Crossbones Yard – Kate Rhodes
Monday 17 October/Tuesday 18 October – Double Indemnity – James M. Cain
Monday 24 October/Tuesday 25 October – Long Way Home – Eva Dolan