The best way, some say, to find out what a place is really like is to read its contemporary crime fiction. Cuban crime maestro Leonardo Padura offers insights into daily life on the island that you would be hard pushed to find elsewhere. Not in its absurd and heavily censored journalism, that’s for sure.
Unlike many translated Cuban writers, Padura has not opted for exile. And fortunately for him – and us – fiction writers on the island enjoy much greater freedom today than in the past. It shows in Havana Black, Padura’s recently translated second novel in a quartet that started with Havana Red. His characters have no illusions about life in Castro’s Cuba – nor the material enticements of Miami either. And the interface between the two is revealed with the reality and subtlety that fiction so generously allows.
The story begins with a former revolutionary government official, responsible for expropriating art works, fetching up dead and castrated in Havana Bay. It falls to our hero, police detective Mario Conde, to unpick the web of deceit and corruption surrounding the case. No ordinary cop, he relies on a sharp pain in his left nipple to tell him when he’s on to something. He’s also a frustrated writer who is desperately seeking permission to leave a police force he has grown to hate.
Havana Black is much more than a tropical whodunit. It’s a feast of rounded and full-blooded characters, complex situations, and conflicting emotions – not least the love-hate relationship Padura’s characters have with their own compelling and infuriating country.