Friday Book: The mobsters at Fidel Castro's gate

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The Independent Culture
Havana Bay

by Martin Cruz Smith,

(Macmillan, pounds 16.99)

IN THE winter of 1993, when I first visited Cuba, the Soviet market for Fidel's sugar had dried up and despair hung over the Caribbean island like the gloom of the rainy season. A group of British miners' wives I met on the return flight had donated obsolete coalfield equipment - ear-muffs, dented hard hats - to Cuba's ailing copper industry. Die- hard Fidelistas, they wore Che Guevara T-shirts over their lobster tans. Arthur Scargill's wife sat clutching a copy of the Cuban party daily Granma (named after the cabin cruiser that ferried Fidel in 1956 to overthrow Batista's thuggish regime).

Tourists flock to Fidel's island for its promise of tropical oblivion. Salsa, daquiris, sun; you can even go snorkelling in the hallowed Bay of Pigs. All talk now is of the Yanqui dollar and how to obtain it. The scramble for greenbacks has created a new Cuban sex industry. Impoverished children of the revolution solicit in the surf of , and their pimps are often only teenagers. Before Batista was finally overthrown in 1959, Havana was effectively a colony of Las Vegas. The ritzy Hotel National was where Lucky Luciano decided which rival mobsters to submerge in wet concrete as his dancing girls sashayed in spangled headdresses.

To judge by Martin Cruz Smith's zingy new thriller, it won't be long before the heirs of Luciano move in again. Dispatched to Havana on a murder investigation, Cruz Smith's ace Russian detective Arkady Renko uncovers a hoodlum conspiracy to turn the Cuban capital into a Caribbean Torremolinos, complete with casinos, love motels and gangland pizzerias. is Smith's fourth Renko novel; the first, Gorky Park, sold more than a million copies.

Cruz Smith is famous for his research. Over several visits to the Cuban capital, he walked as many as 20 miles each day among the locals simply "to educate himself". This crazy dedication to journalistic legwork pays off. Only Cruz Smith could tell us that Cuban fingerprint powder is made from burned palm fronds.

A fine hothouse entertainment, is also a super-accurate travel guide. Havana is now a trendy tourist destination, and Cruz Smith has tapped the market at just the right time. Havana's ravishing decay is currently celebrated in the Buena Vista Social Club film and CD bonanza. The city's collapsing promenades and salt-eaten arcades have long been a favourite with voguish fashion photographers and salsa-dabbling Westerners.

However, Cruz Smith's dogged research into Havana's off-piste boondocks and squalid prostitution rackets lifts him high above the hack thriller- writer. will be remembered as perhaps the only Nineties fiction that foretold Cuba's sad return to the mafia fleshpot and gambling hole it was in Batista's day.

Perspiring in his Moscow overcoat, Captain Renko is hopelessly at sea in tottering, Spanish-speaking Havana. The Cuban animist cult of santeria (a low-alcohol version of Haitian voodoo) offends his pious Slav soul and he flinches queasily at the sight of sacrificial cockerel's blood. Gradually, though, the pedestrian Russian succumbs to Cuba's tainted earthly paradise, where life expectancy is at least 20 years more than in the former USSR. The island's antiquated American cars, broad and finny, are a revelation to Renko.

Brilliantly, Cruz Smith highlights increasingly awkward Russo-Cuban relations. Renko is beaten up by a rogue member of the Policia Nacional de la Revolucion. The antagonism has deep roots. Many Cubans participated in the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games and speak fluent Russian from school. But in 1976 they were press-ganged to fight alongside Soviet troops in Angola. This heroically absurd attempt to sustain a revolution in Africa was doomed by the Cuban unwillingness to fight, and by the disastrous sugar quotas and bread queues back home. After Angola, Castro became a Red bogeyman for many Cubans, who felt the pinch of his Soviet-style planning.

The Fidel of , interestingly, is no evil anti-imperialist but a sad "greybeard lost in haunted reflection". Cruz Smith's credentials are in fact impeccably liberal for a gringo. I hope a copy of this top- notch thriller reaches Castro as he wises up to the mobsters currently at his gate.