Hidden in Havana by José Latour

Hidden in Havana

by José Latour

Published by Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s Minotaur

340 pages, 2008






Diamonds in the Rough

Reviewed by David Thayer

A blind expatriate named Carlos Consuegra dispatches two people, Marina Leucci and Sean Abercorn, to Havana. Marina is Argentine, while Sean is American, a Vietnam vet with a Special Ops background. Their mission is to meet a brother and sister who’ve lived their entire lives in the same apartment in the Cuban capital. Posing as a married couple, they win the confidence of Elena Miranda and her brother, Pablo. Elena is a teacher, her brother a low-life. To further complicate this family’s strange dynamic, Elena and Pablo are the children of a legendary Cuban general who’s serving time for murder in their country’s special prison for fallen heroes.

Author José Latour (Comrades in Miami, Outcast) describes the apartment this way:

Marina and Sean entered a spacious living room in a deplorable condition. A chesterfield with over-stuffed arms and two matching club chairs were badly frayed and stained. At some point the cedar coffee table had lost its glass top and now showed multiple water rings: on it was an ashtray full of reeking butts. The drapes framing the French windows to the balcony, like the shades of the two floor lamps, were also soiled. A solitary light bulb hung from the ceiling, and the cream-colored vinyl paint on the walls was beginning to flake off.

Sean is determined to seduce Elena and Pablo to gain access to their apartment. Somewhere in those dingy confines, it seems, a treasure is hidden -- a quantity of diamonds secreted away decades ago, as revolutionary leader Fidel Castro solidified his power. To gain their trust, Sean offers the couple a night on the town and a fine dinner, the sort of event Elena has never experienced. Pablo mentions the name of a palador, one of the informal restaurants that skirt the Cuban government’s ban on private enterprise; in Havana, there is a maze of laws and regulations routinely bent out of shape by the city’s ingenious inhabitants.

A few days after their dinner, Pablo goes out on the town with another visitor, a mysterious North American known only as “John.” After an evening of barhopping, John suddenly snaps Pablo’s neck, leaving his body in plain sight on a dirt road.

This murder introduces Captain Felix Trujillo of the DTI, the Department of Technical Investigations. Trujillo explains the circumstances of the crime to Pablo and Elena’s father:

Trujillo took off his cap and scratched his head, then spoke in a low tone: “Your son was murdered, General Miranda. There’s no doubt about it. Somebody broke his neck. I feel sure that your daughter already told you he had cocaine in his possession. In his bedroom we found $2,900 and 43 pornographic videos. Pablo was obviously involved in something shady, or dangerous, or both.”

As the novel unfolds further it becomes clear that except for Elena Miranda, everyone is involved in something shady, dangerous or both. Elena is the story’s shining star, beautiful, good-natured and naïve. Latour does a wonderful job of showing us Cuba through her eyes, both the good and the bad of it, along with the absurdities of life under the current regime. She captures the innocence and idealism all revolutions purport to create, and as much as the diamonds themselves, Elena is the treasure hidden in Havana.

Her resentment emerges as Elena ponders the disinformation with which ordinary Cubans must deal:

Memories surfaced in Elena’s mind. In the 1980s some very dirty laundry had been aired in public; in 1989, for example, army and Ministry of the Interior officials were tried for drug smuggling and the media coverage was carefully screened. But since video technology had come to Cuba, the highest-ranking leaders now delivered speeches to small audiences that were videotaped and later shown only to rank and file members of the Communist Party. In this way, the chosen few were informed about internal problems and developments abroad considered too embarrassing or alarming for the whole population. The theory being that ignorance is bliss.

Elena’s slow awakening is rendered well and this loss of innocence drives Latour’s tale to its climax and resolution. Less successful are the thriller elements rendered in back-story; many of the characters here lead double lives with identities to match, so that as the details of the diamond plot are revealed the novel loses some of its original charm. Much of the middle of the book elaborates the backgrounds of Sean and the blind exile, Carlos. The suspense arising out of the police investigation into Pablo’s murder is suffused by the human comedy of Cuba’s interlocking bureaucracies and such vagaries as Captain Trujillo’s head cold and the poor quality of official state vehicles. It’s hard to hurry in a Lada.

Mystery fans may complain, but Hidden in Havana has greater ambitions than the average whodunit. Elena Miranda’s journey from the past to an unimagined present has a magical feel, one that is earned through the storytelling rather than imposed by modernist drivel about the human condition. That willingness to present her story in a straightforward way more than makes up for a plot structure that sometimes ambles off the beaten path into the wild growth where most lives are led, half-hidden and barely understood. Implausible events often shape real lives, although the rules of fiction demand adherence to the governing principles of scene and sequel. José Latour bends a few rules while managing to unroll a yarn that’s grounded in a realistic portrayal of Havana as it is today, coupled with an undertone of romantic escapism as he traces Elena’s improbable triumph as a woman of the world. | April 2008


David Thayer is a Seattle freelance writer and author of the blog One More Bite of the Apple. He’s also a published poet, his work having appeared in an anthology as well as literary magazines. Thayer has recently completed a crime novel, the beginning of a series about cops in the New York Police Department's Intelligence Division.