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Take a trip to Havana, Cuba, via Martin Cruz Smith

August 19, 2001
From a Special to The Vacaville (Calif.) Reporter, May 2001
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@ dcn.davis.ca.us
Enterprise staff writer

If you don't have plans for a vacation this summer, consider taking a trip to Havana, Cuba.

For this trip you won't need to worry about anything more than finding a comfortable place to read, for the Reporter Book Club has selected "Havana Bay" by Northern California writer Martin Cruz Smith as its next selection.

"Havana Bay" was first published in hardback in 1999 but is now available in paperback. It will delight earlier Smith fans who enjoyed "Gorky Park," the novel that first introduced Russian detective Arkady Renko in 1981. The phlegmatic but idealistic Renko came back in "Polar Star" (1989) and "Red Square" (1992).

On this trip, Smith cleverly has taken detective Renko out of cold and snowy Russia. In "Havana Bay," the Cold War is over and the Russians have left Cuba to survive on its own without rubles and without its experts.

In Havana, readers are introduced to a determined and makeshift society where deep-sea fishing is done on inner tubes or from kites and Cuban technology is a mish-mash of borrowed parts. In Havana, Russians are as popular as skunks at a garden party.

Renko has come to Cuba to identify the body of a dead friend, a Russian spy. But the body is too decayed to allow definite identification. It doesn't much matter, because nobody cares about Russians, dead or alive.

Renko doesn't have too much interest in the case, either. He's consumed with thoughts of suicide, unable to bear life without his wife who died in a tragic accident at a Moscow hospital.

Renko decides to quietly kill himself. But when his suicide attempt is interrupted by someone trying to kill him, his sense of right and wrong is piqued. In the ensuing fight, Renko kills his attacker.

"If you'd only waited," the detective observes.

"Havana Bay" is laced with dry, ironic observations and comments delivered by Renko, who wanders the streets wrapped in a black cashmere coat he can't give up. It was a gift from his late wife and still contains whispers of her perfume.

Smith brings his novel to a high level of craftsmanship by his use of specific detail that serves to bring Havana and a cast of characters to life. Music is always playing in his Havana, even though people are hungry and the black market is thriving.

Renko learns that Cuba has a 98 percent homicide solution rate (the best in the world) and that the most common murder weapon is a machete. Americans may not be able to travel to Cuba legally, but Germans, British and French tourists have found Cuban girls to be both beautiful and hungry. The decaying city is home to all sorts of outsiders, from Russian spies to American revolutionaries of the '60s who can't go home.

He also finds that corruption is an accepted way of life in Cuba, tolerated by everyone except the policewoman, Ofelia, assigned to protect him. The love story in this novel has been criticized as being predictable, but the setting and the conclusion are not.

Be warned, however. This is a guy's book and the grisly opening and several fight scenes don't leave much to the imagination.

It is the work of a writer who feels comfortable with his skills. You will be transported to Cuba by a writer who grew up in Reading, Pa. Smith's love of music comes from the fact that his father was a jazz musician and his mother, a Native American, was a jazz singer.

His precise use of detail may come from the fact that he once worked as a newspaper reporter and wrote novels on the side to support his family.

"You have to be an outsider to write," he said in a recent on-line interview. And his detective Renko in "Havana Bay" is the ultimate outsider.

Smith sold "Gorky Park" for $1 million in 1981 and has since written books about Russia, Cuba and the coal mines in 19th century England.

"The great thing about being a writer is that you are always recreating yourself," he said.

To inquire about ordering any of the above mentioned books from an independent bookstore,
Bogey's Books at discounted prices [ Click Here ]

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