CanLit has a new detective and he’s Cuban. Inspector Ricardo Ramirez is the head of the Major Crimes Unit in Havana, Cuba. Lots of Canadian tourists are familiar with Cuba, but through Ramirez’s eyes we get a close-up look at the underbelly of Cuba. The first Inspector Ramirez mystery (there’s at least one more on the way) is called The Beggar’s Opera.
Peggy Blair is the author behind Inspector Ramirez. She used to be a lawyer, but turned to real estate and eventually writing, when she found herself worn out after years of working in human rights law. When she made the decision to leave that career behind and start a new one, she wasn’t entirely sure what to do, until, one Easter, it just came to her. “It just popped into my head ‘I’m going to write a novel!'” she recalled to The Next Chapter’s Shelagh Rogers. Despite the newfound focus, Blair didn’t have the accompanying confidence just yet. “I have to say when I said it out loud, I wasn’t even sure if I could do it. I had spent most of my legal career writing very dry legal opinions, briefs and judgements.”
One thing Blair was sure of, however, was the setting. It was always meant to be Cuba. In 2006, Blair and her daughter travelled to Havana for a holiday, choosing to stay in the heart of the city rather than the vacation resorts on the beach many other tourists flock to. “We spent a fair amount of time with locals, trying to get a handle on the city.” The places she saw and the people she talked to stayed with her years after she and her daughter returned home.
“We just had this incredible experience,” she explained. “Having worked on First Nations reserves for so many decades, the constant parallels kept coming to my mind while I was there. The articulate people, very generous and kind, yet living in these devastating circumstances, with terrible housing and unreliable power and water and so on, in what was this otherwise very educated population.”
Blair was also struck by the lack of basic necessities, which Cubans had to struggle to get. “People were telling me they had no pencils, they had no soap, they had no toner, they had no batteries for their camera.” This daily reality helped frame the challenges Inspector Ramirez faced on the job. “I’d see these police standing on the corner and asked myself, ‘How do they investigate crimes when something happens if they don’t have these basic supplies?'”
These challenges also offered an opportunity for Blair to create a detective who was morally ambiguous, one who did what he needed to do to get the job done. “I wanted a character who balanced on this knife edge of corruption every day.”
Good or bad, Ramirez gets the job done and never gives up. Just like Peggy Blair. The Beggar’s Opera had a long, rocky road to publication, but now Blair is reaping the rewards. After numerous rejection letters and re-writes, a chance meeting with Ian Rankin turned into international sales and a two-book deal with Penguin here in Canada and Blair couldn’t be more thrilled. “It’s incredible.”
You can listen to the audio of this interview with Shelagh Rogers on CBC Books. Here’s the link!