A fellow in my winter Mystery and Suspense class (w/Con Lehane) recommended Leonardo Padura, a Cuban author of detective novels. The recommendation sounded as if they were something I'd like--atmospheric, Chandler-esque stories set in an exotic locale--Habana--so I tried the first one, Havana Blue, written in 1991, and translated into English around 2008.
The Havana Quartet features police lieutenant Mario Conde, known as "The Count." The stories are seasonal, and the first, Blue, is winter. The Count is a likable hero, "a cop who would rather be a writer, and admits to feelings of 'solidarity with writers, crazy people, and drunkards'." Hmm, sounds like me.
The author does a good job with the Habana setting, an excellent job with the characters--not just Conde, but also his sidekick Manolo Palacios, their cigar-loving chief, Conde's crippled pal Skinny, and his love interest, Tamara. He does a swell job with sex, describing feelings of lust and passion without getting too clinical or salacious. The translator, Peter Bush, also seems to have done a better than average job with what must have been challenging prose in the original (despite translating into British, rather than American English.)
The plot is murky. A high-placed cadre disappears, apparently a difficult thing to do in Cuban society. The reason eventually turns out to be theft or embezzlement of international funds from his enterprise. A woman cop of Chinese ancestry finds the paper trail proving this, but what exactly happened or how is about as clear as who killed General Sternwood's chauffeur in The Big Sleep.
The book was relatively irritating in an almost total lack of dialog tags, a total lack of chapters, and a shifting of voices sometimes following a blank line. Although the point of view is generally third person Conde, some of the shifts put us in interrogations in which he's not present--for example Manolo interrogates Maciques, (who turns out to be a murderer), in a section of dialogue in quotes with slashes and ellipses between speakers. What reader needs crap writing like that?
So while the language was lovely, the characters charming, and the setting atmospheric, would I buy another? Havana Gold, Red, or Black? (Spring, summer, or autumn.) Not likely. Too much difficulty slogging through the thing, too little pleasure in return.