And this review, just in by UK blogger Gareth Watkins! Nice! Midnight in Havana hits UK bookstores today Happy birthday, little book — do me proud!
Canadian author Peggy Blair’s debut novel (originally published in Canada under the title The Beggars Opera) is a treat. It’s a fast-moving, original and atmospheric mystery.
Christmas Eve, and the body of a street boy is found floating in the sea. Canadian detective Mike Ellis, who had been holidaying with his wife until they had an argument and she took the first boat off the island, finds himself under suspicion having been seen with the boy the night before. His boss back in Canada sends their best lawyer, Celia Jones, to Cuba to to battle with the bizarre legal system and see if there’s anything she can do for Ellis.
Personally I knew very little about Cuba before starting the book, short of the obvious historical tit-bits. But the island comes alive in the novel. Blair weaves a lot of information into the book without overloading with facts and exposition. Given the plot and characters, of course, the country’s laws come under a lot of scrutiny. One of the main drivers of the story is the police’s need to come up with enough evidence to make a case against a suspect within 72 hours, otherwise they are forced to let the suspect go – even if that means letting them leave the island.
The police force, like many of Castro’s institutions, is deeply corrupt, a fact which Inspector Ramirez simply has to deal with. He’s one of the good guys, of course, but he doesn’t spend time moralising as many fictional detectives do when confronted by similar situations; he accepts the problems and does the best he can. His flaws make him a very relatable character; even when it seems he’s out to get an innocent man, you somehow can’t blame him given the system he has to work under.
In a rather original twist, Ramirez discovers he’s suffering from an inherited condition which may mean he does not have long to live. This knowledge, as it would, governs his thoughts and actions throughout the novel and adds an extra layer of complexity to the character.
The shifting focus from Ramirez to Jones to Ellis means we get to see Cuba through both native and foreign eyes. It’s beautiful but dangerous, steeped in history but falling into decay. It seems natives and tourists alike are torn between loving it and hating it.
Midnight in Havana is gripping novel, with some great twists, and some excellent, understated writing. The setting may be naturally fascinating, but Blair uses it incredibly well, and I certainly hope we’ll be taken back soon.