Saturday, July 7, 2012

Havana Fever--Review

I had no intention of doing more than four books for the Caribbean, and I didn't even include the Lesser Antilles. When I realized that I didn't have anything in the region that dealt with the modern era, I decided to add a few more books. Leonardo Padura's "Havana Fever" was the first book I added to my list.

Leonardo Padura is considered a national treasure in Cuba. I'd never heard of him, partly because I don't tend to read many mysteries; and partly because he seems to be more popular in the UK. The translator, Peter Bush, is clearly British, and Padura's books aren't easy to find in the United States; my library system, which is one of the largest in the United States. didn't possess a copy of any of his books. I didn't want to wait for a Spanish copy to come in, since I was behind schedule, so I just downloaded the ebook on m y reader. Thus, unfortunately, I can't really judge his writing style. There were many times I was frustrated, just as I had been in Jar City, by the use of British colloquialisms; I longed to see what Padura had originally wrote in Spanish as I kept being pulled out of the story.

"Havana Fever" is the fourth mystery featuring the retired-policeman-turned-detective Mario Conde. There's a fifteen year gap, more or less, between the third book of the series and the fourth, so I felt that in many ways this was a jump-start to the series, so that I didn't have to read the previous books. Unlike the earlier novels, "Havana Fever", takes place soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union. when aid has been withdrawn from the island and people are literally starving; to survive Cubans are willing to trade or sell anything for their next meal. The "Count"--Conde--becomes involved with a mysterious couple who want to sell off their extraordinary private library. Then someone dies and...

It was a relief to get back to the twentieth century. Padura is skillful at invoking the conditions of turn of the century Havana, where people dream of Creole dishes of by-gone days, when the glory days of the nightclub era of the fifties are seen as a Golden Age, but where everyone now is on the take as they look for a way to survive. The Conde is a fairly sympathetic character; his relationship with his friends and associates are  interesting and believable, and his depiction of Cuba is compelling. As a mystery? Well, there's two of them, and neither of them are worked out very successfully. The first, involving a young up-and-coming singer who disappears on the eve of Castro's overthrow of the government,  isn't very convincing; though her personal story was fascinating I never was persuaded that Conde would be so compelled to track down her fate. And the second? Well, all I can say is that a locked-room puzzle has to have more than one person within to make it at all involving. Honestly, I'm not even sure why Padura even writes mysteries--perhaps, like Kate Atkinson, he writes genre fiction since he thinks it would be more lucrative. Whatever the reason, he seems to be a bit half-hearted in the nuts and bolts of the plot. And there's a coming-out-of left field (OK, he's actually at a urinal, which seems even more bizarre) sex scene towards the end of the book which was completely unexpected (as I said, he was daydreaming at a urinal) which left me in shock and feeling a bit as if he were pandering to the audience, or strutting that he could write a sex scene, too. Or maybe the editor or publisher pressured him into adding this completely unnecessary interlude. I don't have the faintest idea.

I am glad I read "Havana Fever", but as I said, it's not much of a mystery. I won't be reading the next one in the series. But if I hear that Padura has written a literary novel, I'll be sure to buy it--or better yet, try to persuade my library system of ax excellent writer who is better than his material.

                                                                  Three Stars

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