After Havana by Charles Fleming

The Friday review is a day early; the novel is Charles Fleming’s After Havana. The book was published by Picador.

Set in Cuba in the 1950s, After Havana has the feel of an old-fashioned novel of intrigue, a literary antecedent to the modern day thriller. A violent dictatorship in its final days of power fits the tradition prefectly; Fidel Castro’s revolution is gaining strength in the verdant hills. The mob controlled casinos and beachfront hotels are jammed with tourists, hustlers, gamblers, and the ever present security police.

The story opens with a car crash. A late night joy ride ends badly when a vintage Cadillac slams into a fountain; three Americans are killed instantly. The driver survives only to be executed by a member of the security police. The shooting is witnessed by a mysterious woman on a balcony; she’s traveling with a wealthy American named Calloway. That same night a boat approaches Cuba; its cargo includes a key figure in the revolution, a man known as El Gato.

The protagonist is Sloan, a horn player on the run from Las Vegas; as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that the woman on the balcony is Sloan’s lost love. When she’s kidnapped by the rebels, Sloan goes after her in the scenes that bring the point of view characters together for the story’s climax.

After Havana steps around the politics of the day, presenting Castro’s revolution as an event, not historical watershed. Some of the book’s best scenes occur in the mountains and towns under rebel control; because we follow so many characters on both sides of the war their stories humanize the conflict. With some familiar icons of the era…Meyer Lansky, for example, the novel feels stunted in places, confined by the work that preceded it. In the end it resolves in the way film noir blackens the screen; the noir elements are present from the opening. The author blends the intrigue and the conventions of his genre with just the right amount of tension, atmosphere, death, and despair. He uses a journalist’s eye to recreate Havana on the verge of collapse; it’s a polished read and a compelling story.