Category Archives: Leonardo Padura

If I Were Truly to Be Myself, I Would Break My Family’s Heart*

Many families have what you might call a family culture. Members are a part of that culture, and live by its values. Sometimes, though, a family member decides not to be a part of the family culture – to be a nonconformist. That can be difficult, since that can cause a rift in a family. But it can add richness to a group, too.

That plot point – the family ‘oddball,’ if you will – can add to a story, as well. There are all sorts of possibilities there for conflict, for a ‘whodunit’ plot, and so on. And there are plenty of examples in crime fiction. Here are just a few.

In Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA Murder For Christmas and A Holiday For Murder) we are introduced to the Lee family. Patriarch Simeon Lee is both malicious and tyrannical, so no-one in the family enjoys his company. Still, he is also very wealthy, and has a strong personality. So, when he invites his children and their spouses to spend Christmas at the family home, Gorston Hall, no-one refuses the invitation. On Christmas Eve, Lee is murdered in his private room. Hercule Poirot is in the area, spending the holiday with a friend, so he works with Superintendent Sugden to find out who the killer is. As he does, he gets to know the various members of the Lee family. One of them is David Lee, who’s an artist. In many ways, he’s a family nonconformist. He’s not in the family business, like his brother Alfred; and he’s not in a ‘respectable’ line of work, like his brother George, who’s an MP. He doesn’t even physically resemble his siblings, really. And his father makes it clear that he has little but contempt for David. All of this definitely makes David a ‘person of interest’ in the novel.

Leonardo Padura’s Havana Red features Havana police detective Mario Conde. It takes place in 1989, during the full heat of a Caribbean summer. Conde’s been in ‘exile’ in the police bureaucracy; but his boss, Major Antonio Rangel, gives him a reprieve when a delicate murder case comes up. The body of a young man dressed in a woman’s red dress has been discovered in Havana Park. The victim is soon identified as Alexis Arayán, son of powerful and well-connected diplomat Faustino Arayán. Because of Arayán’s position, this case will have to be handled very quietly and carefully. One possibility is that the victim committed suicide, and that’s not out of the question. At that time, and in that place, to be a homosexual (or even perceived as one) brings with it all sorts of awful social consequences. That’s especially true in a family like this one. There’s also the possibility that this was a murder – the hate crime that it seems on the surface. There are other leads, too. In the end, we learn who killed Alexis Arayán. As we do, we also learn about his life, and about what it’s like to be a nonconformist, especially in a high-profile family.

Larry Watson’s Montana 1948 is the story of the Hayden family. The Hayden name is very respected in Mercer County, Montana, and family patriarch Julian Hayden is proud of that. One of his sons, Frank, is a decorated World War II veteran, and the highly-esteemed local doctor. The other son, Wesley, is the local sheriff – also respected. With him live his wife, Gail, and his son, David. Everything changes for the Haydens during one terrible summer. Wesley’s housekeeper, Marie Little Soldier, falls ill with pneumonia. She refuses to have Frank called in, and at first, won’t explain why. Then, she finally admits the reason. For years, Frank has been raping his female patients at the Fort Warren (Sioux) Reservation. No-one ever spoke out because the family is too powerful. Besides, who would believe the story? Then, Marie suddenly dies. At first, it looks like a sudden relapse, although she had been doing better. But there are also hints that it might have been murder. And Frank was seen near the house on the day of Marie’s death. Now, Wesley’s faced with a terrible set of choices. If Marie’s allegations are true, then his brother is a serial rapist. He may be a murderer, too. At the same time, this is Wesley’s brother, and a well-respected doctor. What’s more, Julian Hayden strongly supports Frank. Wesley has to decide whether to conform to the family culture, or arrest his brother. It’s an awful dilemma, and it changes the family permanently.

There are also plenty of fictional sleuths who don’t conform to their family’s culture, and that can present real challenges for them. For instance, there’s Geraldine Evans’ Detective Inspector (DI) Joe Rafferty of the Elmhurst CID in Essex. He’s from a large, working-class Irish family, most of whom have no use for the police. Several, in fact, are involved in somewhat dubious ‘enterprises’ that wouldn’t stand up under scrutiny. Rafferty knows quite well that he’s a nonconformist, and that does make life difficult for him at times:

‘His family was the limit, especially as some of them were of the opinion that if they must have a copper in the family, he might at least have the decency to be a bent one.’

Unfortunately for his family, he’s not ‘bent.’

Sulari Gentill’s Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair is a member of a very wealthy, ‘blueblood’ New South Wales family. At the time the novels take place (the 1930s), the worldwide Great Depression is in full force, and millions of people are out of work or worse. Families like the Sinclairs, though, are more or less insulated from much of the financial upheaval. They’re aware of what’s going on, and they’re certainly not unaffected. But they are in a good position, and families like that want to keep it that way. Rowly’s brother, Wilfred, has that attitude, and tends to be conservative in his thinking. He’s also conscious of the family’s name and reputation. But Rowly doesn’t conform to that view. He’s got friends in all social categories, and with all sorts of political leanings. It sometimes makes for conflict between the brothers. But it also makes for an interesting dynamic.

There’s also S.J  Rozan’s Chin Ling Wan-ju, who usually goes by the name Lydia Chin. She’s an American-born Chinese PI, who lives and works in New York’s Chinatown. Her mother and siblings live more or less traditional Chinese lives, and their family culture reflects those values. So, as you can imagine, Chin’s mother would like her to find a Chinese husband, marry, and settle down, like a ‘proper’ daughter does. On the one hand, Chin does love and respect her mother, and she appreciates her Chinese culture. She shares some of the beliefs, too. But she is a nonconformist. She is in no rush to find a husband, and she really likes the PI work she does. It all makes for some tense moments, but that nonconformity also adds both to Chin’s character and to the layers of plot.

Characters who don’t conform to the family culture can bring all sorts of trouble on themselves. But they can also be really interesting. And that sort of dynamic can add much to a story or series.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Matthew Wilder and David Zippel’s Reflection. 


Filed under Agatha Christie, Geraldine Evans, Larry Watson, Leonardo Padura, S.J. Rozan, Sulari Gentill

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.


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

In The Spotlight: Leonardo Padura’s Havana Red*

>In The Spotlight: Yrsa Sigurðardóttir's Last RitualsHello, All,

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


Filed under Havana Red, Leonardo Padura

To the Heart of the Caribbean*

Caribbean0002If you’re about ready for that winter getaway, or if you’d like to try somewhere tropical for your summer holiday, you may be thinking that the Caribbean would be the perfect choice. After all, there are plenty of beautiful islands, with lots of perfect beaches. Whether you like swimming, casinos, water sport or just simply enjoying nature, you’ll find lots to do. Oh, and there’s Caribbean music, too.

But there’s plenty of mystery, to say nothing of the danger from nature (e.g. hurricanes). And all sorts of people go there, with all sorts of backgrounds. So it’s little wonder that we see the Caribbean depicted in crime fiction.

Agatha Christie’s A Caribbean Mystery is set on the island of St. Honoré in the West Indies. Miss Marple is staying at the Golden Palm Hotel, courtesy of her nephew Raymond West, for a much-needed rest. One day she gets into a conversation with the long-winded Major Palgrave, who tells her about a man he knows of who lost two wives, both allegedly by suicide. But Major Palgrave suspects that they were murdered. He doesn’t get the opportunity to finish his story during that conversation, but Miss Marple remembers it. When Palgrave is found dead the next morning, Miss Marple is sure that someone at the resort doesn’t want the truth about those other deaths to come out. It turns out that she’s quite right, and that the resort hides some very dark secrets.

Fans of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee will know that McGee docks his boat The Busted Flush at the marina in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. In Darker Than Amber, he and his friend Meyer are fishing one night under a bridge when they save a young woman named Evangeline from being drowned after she is thrown from the bridge. As McGee and Meyer learn, Evangeline’s near death is related to a very dangerous fraud scheme going on aboard a cruise ship. So they take a Caribbean cruise to track down the people responsible. Even Caribbean cruises aren’t always lovely, restful experiences…

Leonardo Padura’s Havana quartet is set in modern Cuba. It features Lieutenant Mario Conde, who tries to do the best he can despite challenges such as low budgets, constant scrutiny and the fact that he’d rather write than be a cop. In the first novel, Máscaras/Havana Red, Conde and his team investigate when the body of a transvestite named Alexis Arayán is found in the Havana Woods. Since the victim was the son of a diplomat, this is going to be a delicate matter. It’s even more so for Arayán’s partner Alberto Marques, who is a playwright and director. Marques is already ‘on the fringe’ because of his sexual orientation, and it’s not going to help him or his career if he gets too deeply involved in this case. But he works with Conde to find out who called his partner and why.

We also get a look at Cuba, this time pre-revolutionary Cuba, in Mayra Montero’s Dancing to ‘Almendra.’In that novel, which takes place in 1957, we meet fledgling journalist Joaquín Porrata. One day, he hears of the murder of Umberto Anastasia, a gangster known as The Great Executioner of Murder. Anastasia was killed in a New York barbershop, but Porrata has reason to think his murder is connected with Mob turf wars in Havana. It’s also connected with the killing of a hippopotamus that escaped from the local zoo.

There are also Bob Morris’ Zack Chasteen novels. Chasteen is a former player for the Miami Dolphins. He’s also a wrongly-convicted ex-convict. He gets reluctantly drawn into the PI business in Bahamarama, shortly after he’s been released from a Florida prison. He’s in the Bahamas on his way to visit his lover Barbara Pickering when he gets involved in a case of abduction and murder. Barbara’s ex-fiancé has been killed, and she’s been taken, with a huge ransom demanded. Chasteen works with the local police inspector Lynfield Pederson to find out where Barbara is, and confront those responsible. In this case, Chasteen past catches up with him…

And then there’s James L’Etoile’s Little River, which takes place on Jamaica. Andrea Carson is more than worried that her daughter Holly hasn’t returned as planned from her spring break at Montego Bay. When she gets no help from authorities, she decides to go there and look for Holly. With her is Grant Turner, whose daughter Jena also seems to have disappeared. The two girls went on the trip together, so their parents are hoping that they may both be found. When Carson and Turner arrive at Montego Bay, they start asking questions, which immediately draw the attention of local crime boss Jon-Pierre Baptiste. Among his other ‘enterprises’ is human trafficking, and it’s not long before his path crosses that of Carson and Turner. Now it’s a game of ‘cat and mouse’ as the two parents work desperately to try to find and save their daughters.

It’s no secret that the Caribbean is also a popular place to hide money. Offshore accounts can be effective places to keep funds from the hands of tax assessors and auditors, among other people. So it’s little wonder that Ava Lee ends up in the Caribbean in Ian Hamilton’s The Water Rat of Wanchai. Lee is a forensic accountant whose specialty is tracking down large amounts of money that people want to keep hidden. She works for Chow Tung, whom she calls Uncle. Uncle’s company is based in Hong Kong, and is the last resort for people who’ve had money stolen from them and are desperate to get it back. Such a person is Andrew Tam, whose company has been bilked out of five million dollars. He hires Uncle, and therefore Lee, to find the money. The trail takes Lee to Georgetown, Guyana, where she tracks down Jackson Seto, who likely knows where the money is. The only problem is that most of Guyana is under the control of crime boss Captain Robbins. Lee knows that she’ll never be able to catch Seto or get the money without Robbins’ sanction, so she forms an uneasy, unstrusting and costly alliance with him. There’s no guarantee that the money will ever be forthcoming, but Lee is determined to do her best. In this novel, the search for the money leads to a few places in the Caribbean.

See? And you thought the Caribbean was just an exciting holiday destination…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Marley’s Buffalo Soldier.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Bob Morris, James L'Etoile, John D. MacDonald, Leonardo Padura, Mayra Montero