Havana Black, by Leonardo Padura, translated by Peter Bush

A Cuban whodunit unfolding in a fog of corruption and cigar smoke
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The Independent Culture

Leonardo Padura's Havana Red introduced the English-speaking world to Lieutenant Mario Conde, who pursued a baroque concept of police work amid the crumbling riches of Havana. Now, his admired boss has been replaced, his Siamese fighting fish is floating belly-up, and Conde has handed in his resignation, locking himself in to die of "rum and cigar-ettes, grief and bitterness".

He is persuaded to interrupt this bout of anomie to take on an intriguing case. A former minister responsible for confiscating pre-revolutionary art-works has been killed. As well as having his head smashed in, the deceased had been castrated. The victim had been living safely in Miami, so why had he returned to a country where he might have many enemies?

Padura's satisfying narrative delves deep into Conde's world and into the stories of his friends and colleagues. Hanging over the book is an oppressive tension; Cuba is waiting for a hurricane. Conde needs to get his story sorted out before the storm hits - not just the crime, but the fictional narrative at which he bangs away on an old typewriter.

Just occasionally, in his beloved, filthy city, he encounters oases of culture, cleanliness and corruption. Such a spot is the mansion of another former minister, whose home is replete with treasures - including a painting possibly by Matisse. Conde's life is brightened, Chandler-style, by the appearance of a gorgeous blonde widow. And the owner of the neocolonial splendour was closely involved with the murder victim, whose task it had been to expropriate the possessions of the wealthy who fled Cuba after the revolution and assign their houses to the favoured few.

The unravelling of this story, which reaches far back into Cuban history, is overlaid with a rich smoky patina, an atmosphere that reeks of slums and riches, cigar-smoke and exotic perfumes. Fuelling it all, one senses Padura's rage at a succession of betrayals: by the capitalist exploiters who jumped ship when the Communists came; by the corrupt comrades, among whom survived the luxury and corruption of the bourgeoisie; by the naked greed of the exiles in Miami.

Padura is one of a lost Cuban generation: brought up with the optimism of the revolution, imbued with egalitarian ideas, yet enraged by the wretched poverty of fellow islanders to whose misery the revolution has made little difference. This is a strong-tasting book, a rich feast of wit and feeling.