Category Archives: Carolina Garcia-Aguilera

When They’ve Been Used So Ill*

A really interesting conversation with crime writer and fellow blogger Angela Savage has got me thinking about what’s sometimes called sexually transmitted debt. By that, I mean becoming responsible for a spouse or partner’s debt after being convinced (sometimes misled) into taking on new debt or financial risks without necessarily being aware of it at first. Some sexually transmitted debt involves a partner agreeing to share (or assume) the responsibility for a debt. It can work in other ways, too.

Whichever way it works, it can leave a person in a great deal of financial trouble. And, in crime fiction, it can add to plot lines, character development, tension, and more. Here are just a few examples; I’ll bet you’ll be able to think of more.

In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds, we are introduced to Lord Stephen Horbury. He fell in love with a chorus girl named Cicely Bland, and married her without really getting to know her. The fact is, though, that Cicely has a fondness for gambling. She’s not averse to using cocaine, either. All of this has meant that she owes a lot of money. At first, her husband paid her debts, mostly for the sake of the family name.  But Cicely’s debts keep mounting. So, she borrows money from a French moneylender named Madame Giselle. Then, when she’s not able to pay what she owes, Madame Giselle threatens to reveal certain information that she has. Cicely is frantic, but this time, her husband is no longer willing to assume her debt. He even makes a public announcement that he will no longer be responsible for anything she owes. It all puts Cicely in a very difficult position, especially when Madame Giselle is murdered during an airline flight. Cicely is also on the flight, and becomes one of the suspects. Hercule Poirot, who was also a passenger, works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out who actually killed the victim.

In Carolina Garcia-Aguilera’s Bloody Waters, we are introduced to Miami PI Guadalupe ‘Lupe’ Solano. Jose Antonio and Lucia Moreno hire Solano to find the birth mother of their adopted daughter, Michelle, who is very ill. Doctors say that she needs a bone marrow transplant, and that only her biological mother can serve as her donor. Solano takes the case and finds out everything she can about the circumstances of Michelle’s birth and adoption. Along this way, she meets Barbara Perez, whose partner, Alberto Cruz, is mixed up in illegal businesses. Barbara knows what he’s doing, but there really isn’t much of a way out for her, mostly because she’s got children. Later in the novel, she gets herself (and Solano) into real danger because of the work her partner was doing, and the money from it that he was supposed to have hidden away. This isn’t, strictly speaking, a case of debt that’s transmitted. But it is an interesting case of being mixed up in a partner’s criminal activity, and risking a heavy price for that.

Peg Brantley’s Red Tide introduces readers to Jackie ‘Jax’ Sussman, medical examiner for Aspen Falls, Colorado. Her husband, Phil, is a philanderer with a gambling problem and other ‘expenses.’ Jax pays his debts and, so far, has stayed with him. But the cost of assuming that financial responsibility has wiped her out financially. Her sister, Jamie, is a loan officer for a local bank, so she’s all too well aware of Jax’s financial situation. But there’s very little she can do. In one plot thread of this story, both sisters get mixed up in a case of multiple murders when FBI agent Nicholas Grant is assigned to find 13 bodies in the Aspen Falls area. Convicted killer Leonard Bonzer has confessed to the murders, but won’t tell police where the bodies are. And, when other, more recent corpses are discovered, it looks as though there might be a ‘copycat’ at work. Admittedly, Jax’s financial situation isn’t the main plot thread, nor the reason for the murders. But it does show how sexually transmitted debt can work.

There’s also Natuso Kirino’s Out. This novel is the story of a group of women who work nights at a Tokyo factory that makes boxed lunches. One of them, Yayoi, is married to an abusive husband, Kenji, who has gambled away their savings. Now, she’s left with a heavily mortgaged home, little money, and no real way to pay off the debt – not on her salary. In a rage, she strangles Kenji with his own belt. Now, of course, she’s left with a body, and the very real likelihood that she’ll be arrested for the murder. So, she turns to her co-workers for help. Their choices draw the women into a very dark web of Tokyo’s underside.

And then there’s Chelsea Field’s series featuring Isobel ‘Izzy’ Avery. In Eat, Pray, Die, we learn that Izzy has recently moved from her home town of Adelaide to Los Angeles. Mostly, she made the move to escape her ex-husband, Steve. More specifically, she wants to escape Platypus Lending, a loan shark operation that she owes money to, thanks to Steve. Early in their marriage, Steve convinced her to
 

‘…get a two-hundred-grand-loan to invest in some “sure thing” stocks…’
 

Even she admits that was stupid. The plan backfired, the stock market crashed, and Steve hadn’t told her he’d borrowed money from a shady operation. Now, Izzy works as a professional taster for Los Angeles’ rich and famous. This series is among other things, an interesting look at how much trouble sexually transmitted debt can cause.

I’m really glad Angela brought the topic up, as it’s really interesting. And it’s a good reminder to be sure of the person you choose as a partner…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lionel Bart‘s As Long As He Needs Me.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Carolina Garcia-Aguilera, Chelsea Field, Natsuo Kirino, Peg Brantley

Oh, Havana, I’ve Been Searching For You Everywhere*

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.

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Filed under Carolina Garcia-Aguilera, Leonardo Padura, Mayra Montero, Paul Goldstein, Robin Cook

In The Spotlight: Carolina Garcia-Aguilera’s Bloody Waters

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. You may not think about it, but Miami isn’t just a major US city. It’s also a very important Caribbean city, with a strong dose of Latin America in its culture. To get a sense of what Miami is like, let’s turn today’s spotlight on Carolina Garcia-Aguilera’s Bloody Waters, the first of her series featuring PI Guadalupe ‘Lupe’ Solano.

Solano is Cuban-American (almost more Cuban than American in culture), who opened her own PI business after interning for a few years with a large agency. One day, she gets a pair of new clients, Jose Antonio and Lucia Moreno. They’ve been referred to her by her family’s attorney, Stanley Zimmerman, and they have a serious problem. A few years earlier, they adopted a baby, whom they’ve called Michelle, through a man named Elio Betancourt. They knew that the adoption wasn’t completely legal, but were desperate for a baby, and had the money. Betancourt arranged everything, and all seemed well. Now, though, Michelle is seriously ill, and needs a bone marrow transplant. The only one who can serve as donor is the child’s biological mother. But the Morenos never learned the woman’s name. And Betancourt has categorically refused to help them at all. Now, they want Solano to find the mother and get her to agree to donate bone marrow. Solano takes the case, and begins a search.

She starts at the most likely hospital, Jackson Memorial, but that’s not much help. She doesn’t have much information; and, in any case, what she’s looking for is confidential, and she likely can’t get it. The local Bureau of Vital Statistics, where every birth is registered, has no record, since Michelle and her family didn’t go through a legal, court-sponsored adoption. And the doctor who delivered the baby has retired and moved away.

But Solano is not without resources. With some help from some part-time investigators she occasionally hires, she learns some of the truth about the Moreno baby, and several others, too. It doesn’t tell her the name she needs, but it gives her strong leads. Then, things begin to get dangerous. Someone seems to be watching her, even getting into her apartment. Then, one of the people she interviews is murdered. There’s another murder, too. It’s now clear that someone is willing to do whatever it takes to prevent Solano from getting to the truth. Meanwhile, time is running out for Michelle Moreno. Solano will have to use every resource she has, and try to stay alive, if she’s to find the birth mother before it’s too late.

The novel takes place, as I say, mostly in Miami, which Solano describes as,
 

‘…the unofficial capital of Latin America.’
 

And we see that influence very clearly. Solano is Cuban (as is her creator), and so are most of her friends and acquaintances. So, readers get a look at the Cuban culture of the city. Food, lifestyle, religion, language use, and a lot more show how close Cuba really is to Miami.

That culture is especially clear in Solano’s family. Her parents, like many people, moved to Miami from Cuba after the revolution that put Fidel Castro in power. They still consider themselves Cuban, though. They speak Cuban Spanish at home, and Solano’s father speaks often of going back as soon as Castro is out of power. They’re an unabashedly Roman Catholic family, too, although Solano herself is more culturally Catholic, if I can put it that way, then observant.

The story is told from Solano’s point of view (first person, past tense), so we learn about her character. She’s very much attached to her family members, even though sometimes she gets irritated with them. In fact, her cousin Leonardo is her assistant. But she has no desire to give up her independence and go back home to live. She also has no wish to marry, settle down and have children. She has more than one man in her life, but she likes answering only to herself. In that sense, she’s not at all traditional in her views. She makes her share of mistakes, and finds her share of trouble. But she’s tough, smart and quick-thinking. As she puts it,
 

‘In Miami, you could find yourself in deep waters very quickly. Staying sharp was a matter of life and death.’
 

She also has a certain wit. Here, for instance, is how she describes Zimmerman:
 

‘The Morenos were also his clients, which meant they had to be really well-off. Stanley Zimmerman didn’t have poor clients. He thought pro bono was something Julius Caesar fed his troops.’
 

Readers who prefer strong female protagonists will appreciate Solano.

The mystery itself is connected to the illegal adoption business, and it gets ugly. There are couples desperate to have children; young, pregnant, unmarried women in a terrible situation in life; and greedy people who are willing to take advantage of both. There are some important issues of moral ambiguity, too.

Solano solves the mystery through a lot of telephone calls, legwork, and searches through documents and photographs, as well as a few clever ruses. The novel was published in 1996, before today’s social media and other online resources were readily available. So, Solano doesn’t have the luxury of doing Internet searches. The book provides a look at what PI work was like just before those modern resources became routine.

Bloody Waters shows a dark side of life in Miami, and of the adoption process. It’s a sometimes-gritty look at the life of a PI, and introduces a Cuban-American sleuth who doesn’t mind taking chances if that’ll get her answers. But what’s your view? Have you read Bloody Waters? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

 

Monday, 31 July/Tuesday, 1 August – Trial of Passion – William Deverell

Monday, 7 August/Tuesday, 8 August – Murder in the Marais – Cara Black

Monday, 14 August/Tuesday, 15 August – The Cemetery of Swallows – Jean-Denis Bruet-Ferreol

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Filed under Bloody Waters, Carolina Garcia-Aguilera