As this is posted, it would have been Fidel Castro’s 91st birthday. Whatever you think of Castro, his politics or his history, it’s impossible to deny his impact on Cuba and on world politics. And it’s interesting to see how Cuba features in crime fiction. Leaving politics aside (Please! Let’s leave politics aside.), there are some interesting crime novels and series set in Cuba at different times, and they give readers a fascinating portrait of the country.
For instance, Mayra Montero’s Dancing to ‘Almendra’ takes place in 1957 Havana, just before the revolution that will put Castro in power. At the time, Fulgencio Batista is still in power, and his secret police and armed forces do whatever it takes to keep things that way. But at the same time, there is a groundswell of support for a revolution, and plenty of tension in the atmosphere. Against this backdrop, we are introduced to Joaquín Porrata, a fledging reporter for the Diario de la Marina. So far, his assignments have mostly been ‘fluff’ pieces, such as interviews with starlets and ‘lightweight’ news. Then, he hears of the murder of Umberto Anastasia in a New York City barbershop. Anastasia was known as The Great Executioner of Murder, Inc., and had quite a reputation among mobsters with strong links to the Havana casino and club scene. And that, Porrata believes, is the reason he was killed. He apparently ‘stuck his nose’ into other Mob bosses’ Havana interests, and that sealed his fate. Porrata’s managing editor doesn’t think Anastasia’s death is relevant for a Havana newspaper, and instead, assigns Porrata to another story, the mysterious death of a hippopotamus that had escaped from a local zoo. Porrata learns that the hippo’s death was likely a message to Anastasia, and comes to believe that the two stories are linked. When he’s lured away from his employer by the Prensa Libre, he’s given permission to investigate Anastasia’s murder. But the closer he gets to the truth, the more determined some very powerful people are that it will not get reported. Among other things, this is an interesting look at life in Havana just before Castro took power.
When Castro did come to power, many Cubans left the country and developed their own communities elsewhere. One of the largest ex-pat Cuban communities is in Miami, and that makes sense, given its proximity to Havana. Readers get a close look at that community in the work of Carolina Garcia-Aguilera, who is herself a Cuban-born American. Her sleuth is PI Guadalupe ‘Lupe’ Solano. Solano’s parents emigrated from Cuba because of the revolution, and her father still feels a deep connection to his homeland. In fact, he pays close attention to any radio news he gets from Cuba, so that when the time is right, he and his family can return. The other members of the family also feel close to their Cuban background. They speak Cuban Spanish, eat a traditional Cuban diet to the extent they can, and keep their culture alive in other ways, too. And in several of the mysteries in this series, Solano’s investigations include links to Cuba. So they offer readers a glimpse of life in modern Cuba, and of the relations between people who stayed in Cuba and their families, and those who left.
Leonardo Padura also offers readers a look at life in Havana. His Mario Conde series features Lieutenant Mario Conde of the Havana police force. The first quartet of novels (published in English as Havana Red, Havana Blue, Havana Black, and Havana Gold) takes place in 1989, mostly in Havana. Through Conde’s eyes, readers follow the lives of people who stayed in Cuba and worked to make good lives there. Some stayed because they believed in the revolution. Others stayed because they saw no other option. Either way, the novels offer a look at Cuban life from the perspective of those who stayed on after the revolution. On the one hand, Conde sees clearly some of the serious problems facing the country. There’s corruption where there was supposed to be equity. There’s poverty, too, and shortages. There are other challenges as well. But at the same time, Conde loves his home, his old friends, and his culture. He isn’t at all blind to the failures of the Castro government, but he loves his homeland. For those interested, there’s also Havana Fever, which takes place in 2003, and features a now-retired Conde. Again, as much as anything else, it’s a look at modern Havana. Conde dreams of being a writer, and these novels are as much literary as they are crime fiction, but there are certainly important crime plots in them.
There’s also Paul Goldstein’s Havana Requiem, which features New York attorney Michael Seeley. In the novel, he’s trying to put his life back together after a devastating series of setbacks. He’s got a brilliant legal mind, so he’s starting to regain some of what he lost. Then he gets a visit from Héctor Reynoso, a Cuban musician and composer, whose music was very popular during the ‘Golden Age’ of Cuban music, in the 1940s and 1950s. Reynoso has taken grave risks to come to the US and ask for Seeley’s help on behalf of himself and some composer friends. His claim is that their music was stolen from them, and they want their rights (and royalties) back. And that adds up to a considerable amount of money, too, since the music is still popular and still being covered by contemporary Latin artists. Seeley has a reputation for defending the rights of composers and other artists, and Reynoso’s been told he’s the best. Seeley has his own problems, and at first doesn’t want to take this case. But when he sees how the group has been defrauded, he takes an interest. He goes to Havana and begins a search for the other composers in Reynoso’s group, but before he can accomplish much, Reynoso disappears. Now Seeley is caught up in a web of intrigue with international implications, especially given the always-delicate situation between Cuba and the US. The main plot of the novel has to do with copyright law, rights to work, and other, related, legal issues. But it also offers a look at modern Havana.
There are other novels, too, (I’m thinking, for instance, of Robin Cook’s medical thriller, Crisis, for instance) with scenes that take place in Cuba. It’s a country rich in heritage and culture, and whatever else one might say of Fidel Castro, he left his mark there.
ps. Thanks to Condé Nast Traveller for the ‘photo.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Rosalinda’s Eyes.