BOOKS: Fiction: Familiar cocktail

CUBA LIBRE by Elmore Leonard Viking pounds 16.99

THERE ARE few really reliable pleasures in life: Elmore Leonard is one of them. Every new book he writes has its share of novelty or surprises - a more complicated scam, an unexpected death, an ingeniously staged shoot-out - but the differences are outweighed by the continuities. Every plot is unpredictable in detail, but predictable in broad outline.

Most of the other novels are set in contemporary Detroit or Miami, with occasional excursions to California, Europe and the Middle East, though he has used period backgrounds in westerns and in The Moonshine War, set in Prohibition Kentucky. But Cuba Libre, his 34th, is his first historical novel, in the sense of being based around actual historical events: the sinking of the US battleship Maine in Havana harbour in February 1898, and the subsequent Spanish-American War.

Ben Tyler, the horse-trader hero, who arrives in Havana with a string of horses (and, more to the point, a consignment of contraband guns and ammunition for the rebels) three days after the destruction of the Maine, is recognisably one of Leonard's late 20th-century heroes: a stand-up guy who says what he means, never starts a fight he doesn't mean to finish and won't take any shit from anybody. Like them,Tyler will always collect a debt - he has done time in jail for robbing banks; in each case he was taking money he was owed by one of the bank's account-holders (the same obsession is at the centre of Get Shorty and Riding the Rap). He also has dandyish tastes, particularly in hats, not unlike Marshal Raylan Givens, in Riding the Rap and Pronto.

Tyler falls in love (at first sight: Leonard has a few of his heroes do that, old softie that he is) with Amelia, the mistress of a wealthy American plantation owner, a sassy, self-determined heroine in the tradition of Karen DiCilia in Gold Coast or Mary Delaney in Cat Chaser. Together, they get involved in an extortion scam, complicated by a variety of double- crosses, not a million miles from the scams in The Switch or Bandits, which involves a thug from the Florida Everglades called Novis Crowe - presumably an ancestor of Floridan thugs Elvin Crowe and his nephew Dale in Maximum Bob, and Roland Crowe in Gold Coast.

All this means is that Leonard's fans will not be disappointed by Cuba Libre - which is not to say that the book is altogether successful. The plotting goes awry towards the end, and there are a number of superfluous characters. These include a marine called Virgil Webster who has survived the explosion on the Maine, and who acts as a rather tenuous link between Leonard's story and the big story going on outside; and a reporter called Neely Tucker, whose job seems to be to supply historical background. Leonard's generally acute ear for dialogue occasionally lets him down, too (surely a 19th-century Cuban revolutionary would have been unlikely to talk of human rights?). And despite the liberal sympathies on display, he does resort to Hispanic stereotypes - proud, touchy gallants, stone killers, or elderly peasants full of earthy, practical wisdom.

But there are treats to make up for these failings. The evocation of Cuban life is excellently done - tension and suspicion combined with an almost decadent lack of interest, summed up in a scene of marvellously throw-away comedy. A police spy who has been watching Tyler reports back to his chief that the American has bought himself a new wardrobe:

"How did it look?"

"Elegant, with a white shirt and a kerchief of a light blue shade, the kerchief his own."

Palenzuela said, "Hmmmm," nodding. "I like a kerchief sometimes."

This may not be Leonard's best novel, but it does contain some of his best writing: and he is one of the best prose stylists practising in English. It may not be a great book, but it is definitely a great read.

Suggested Topics
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
    No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

    No hope and no jobs in Gaza

    So the young risk their lives and run for it
    Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

    Fashion apps

    Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate