José Latour


"Comrades in Miami"

(reviewed by Mary Whipple JAN 29, 2006)

"We've been lied to all our lives.  Communism is worse than fascism.  And the Chief [Castro] must've known from the very beginning that it doesn't work, 'cause he's brilliant.  He tricked our people into it because he realized it was the only contemporary political system that made it possible for him to wield power forever.  But giving him the benefit of the doubt, thirty-five years have furnished enough evidence to persuade even the mentally handicapped that it doesn't work.  But he just doesn't want to let go."

Often called a "master of Cuban noir" writing, Jose Latour writes his darkest novel yet, one which appears on the surface to be a "Cold War" novel of espionage and suspense, though it is written long after the conclusion of the Cold War between the US and the USSR.  Here the "Cold War" that exists is between Cuba and the US, two patently unequal adversaries, with the Cuban intelligence services working even in the present day to protect their borders from US influence, dissuade their people from seeking freedom and independence, and prevent their country from imploding through lack of materials and financial resources.

Elliot Steil, a former teacher in Cuba, is now working in Florida for IMLATINEX, a company which trades with many Latin American countries, including, covertly, Cuba.  Taking his first vacation back to Cuba in many years so that he can visit his family, he is "persuaded" by representatives of the FBI and US Treasury Department to report on any contacts Cubans may make with him and any messages that he may receive from strangers.  Steil complies, though he has no idea what he may learn or how important it may be.

Inside Cuba, Victoria Valiente, a psychologist working with the general director of Cuban Intelligence, is the most respected member of that agency.  Brilliant, but physically plain, she is the head of the Miami desk of the USA Department, an ambitious woman who has risen to the rank of colonel.  One of the most interesting characters in the novel, Victoria, a woman with an IQ of 176, looks so "forgettable" that she can fulfill many roles and not have her adversaries even remember her.  Like the femme fatales of noir cinema, she has a voracious sexual appetite, however, and Latour's graphically depicted scenes of her sexual experimentation turn this plain woman into an alluring siren of the first magnitude.  Both complex and vulnerable, Victoria elicits interest (and even some sympathy) in the reader, despite her tunnel vision and lack of feeling for humanity at large.

Her husband, Manuel Pardo, works for XEMIC, a front for Cuban counterintelligence, for which he has set up a data processing bureau to deal with everything from accounting to decryption.  Pardo's mission abroad for seven weeks infects him with the "virus of freedom," a "virus" he eventually passes on to Victoria, and he begins to experiment with money laundering and the setting up of untraceable offshore accounts, eventually stealing almost two million dollars and threatening the stability of the fragile Cuban economy.

As the intelligence and counterintelligence units of both the US and Cuba conduct their cloak and dagger war, it is Steil, the Cuban ex-patriate, who is caught in the crossfire.  IMLATINEX, the company he manages, has a history of which he is unaware, and it involves Victoria Valiente and Manuel Pardo, along with the deceased head of IMLATINEX and his widow, Maria Scheindlin, a woman who emigrated from Poland thirty years ago.  Gradually, Steil's world becomes smaller and smaller and more fraught with danger, and when Victoria Valiente and Manuel Pardo arrive secretly in Miami, all the players are in the same city, though no one is sure of the loyalties of the others, and no one knows who the real "enemy" may be.

As in other noir thrillers, the main characters are all alienated from society and often paranoid, on the run.  Violent actions take place, and the reader is not always sure why these events occur since important information is sometimes withheld regarding the true identities and loyalties of some of the players.  A devastated Cuban society, held to a failed communist agenda by Castro, elicits much sympathy--Steil's simple gifts to his family, ecstatically received, consist of hairpins, disposable razors, flashlights, batteries, and even bed sheets, items that Floridians take for granted.  The Cuban and the American intelligence communities are revealed to be equally culpable in matters of treachery and unthinking, single-minded action.

With the Cold War seemingly over, except with Cuba, a poor country with few resources and a down-trodden population, the size of the US intelligence operation seems strange, and the novel feels like a throw-back to the Cold War days when espionage and its consequences focused on the conflict between the US and the USSR.  The disparity between the resources of Cuba and those of the US, along with the fact that Castro will not last forever, will not escape the reader as the dying embers of a dying regime become the focus of a complex novel in which the protagonists try to protect themselves and their interests as time passes.  Past and present relationships between the US, Poland, Israel, Cuba, and other Latin American countries are subjected to the spotlight.  Exciting, but ultimately downbeat, the novel serves as a socio-political critique of the relationships between many first world countries and the sad and paranoid state of present-day Cuba.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 3 reviews
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"Havana World Series"

(reviewed by Mary Whipple FEB 22, 2004)

"This law allowing a casino in any new hotel that costs over a million bucks to build is great-Cuban unions finance part of the deal, the twenty-five thousand down payment for an operation permit and the two thousand monthly fee are pretty cheap, labor regulations make us legit here, police are cooperative, hundreds of thousands of tourists flood in, and result of it all is: We're making a bundle. It's too good to be true, or to last."

Billed as a master of "Cuban noir," José Latour presents a dark novel of gambling, the American mob, and violence in Havana in 1958, during the presidency of Fulgencio Batista, a friend of mob boss Meyer Lansky. Fidel Castro is making some waves politically with his appeal to the poor, but he is still in the provinces and unlikely to have much influence on Lansky's gambling empire in the immediate future. Of far more importance to Lansky and his henchmen in Havana is the threat posed by Joe Bonnano and his "family" in New York, mobsters who are threatening to muscle in on a piece of Lansky's gambling "pie" in Havana.

Lansky is deeply involved with the Casino at the Capri Hotel, having made deals with many of the casino's employees, inspectors, and supervisors. With his direct connection to President Batista, no one in Havana thinks the casino is a mere adjunct to the hotel-the opposite is very much the case. Now, during the World Series between the New York Yankees and the Milwaukee Braves, Lansky's involvement in gambling extends way beyond the boundaries of the casino, and he expects to rake in hundreds of thousands of dollars in bets on the games.

A motley group of locals, working for Elias Naguib, a Lebanese businessman with ties to New York mob boss Joe Bonnano, has been working for weeks, planning a "fool-proof" robbery of Lansky's take after the Series concludes, before Lansky and his men can get the money out of Cuba and into Miami. All the details have been worked out-the percentage each of the men will receive, who will do what during the heist itself, where each man will go following the robbery, what will become of the money, and where each man will hide his own stash. Ironically, it is the death of Pope Pius XII and the early closing of the casinos "out of respect" on the last night of the World Series that causes the timing of the heist to be pushed up and an element of uncertainty to be injected into the foolproof plans. Not surprisingly, a bloody mess results, and Lansky, smarting from humiliation and having lost face because of the robbery, is determined to recover his cash, punish those responsible, protect his Havana turf, and come out a winner once again.

Latour is an extremely precise, controlled, and very directed writer who never strays from his narrative or gets lost in details. He has plotted his novel to the last microdetail, leaving no loose ends unresolved, and the novel moves along smartly, despite its complexity. Lansky's activities and the depiction of his gambling empire alternate with the play-by-play of each of the six games, lending a sense of credibility and realism to the tumultuous Havana political scene and spotlighting the conditions which have allowed Lansky and his American mobsters to flourish in Havana. Corrupt politicians and police combine with venal mobsters to exert control over businesses ranging from prostitution and abortion to the international sugar, jewelry, gaming, and spare auto parts industries. Tawdry Havana with all its neon tackiness and grubby glamour comes alive here, attracting the fringe-dwellers of society like flies to a corpse. Though Latour is not primarily interested in presenting a sociological study of these marginalized characters, he nevertheless gives color to his narrative by presenting the background of each, allowing the reader to decipher what motivates each one and what each hopes to gain from his activities during the crucial period of the 1958 World Series.

Careful descriptions of how the casinos are run as businesses, their regulatory oversight, and the financial implications of a Castro take-over are balanced by equally careful descriptions of corrupt officials as the action rockets forward and the bodies start to pile up. The internecine rivalry among New York mob families adds external complications to the complex internal struggles for influence in Havana, and as the reader is presented with examples of massive corruption and the powerlessness of the average citizen to control his own destiny, an understanding of the forces which propelled Fidel Castro to power begins to develop.

Latour is an exceptionally "clean" writer, choosing to develop drama and suspense through his careful selection of details and his ability to create a milieu by amassing specifics and piling them upon each other. He allows himself no forays into romantic description or heart-tugging literary pictures. What you "see" here of Havana appears to be presented with almost journalistic impartiality, though the author controls the picture by emphasizing particular facts and images. Complex and exciting in its plotting and fully detailed in its depiction of 1958 Havana, this is a fine novel, bold and masculine in its presentation and full of the violence and uncertainty which presaged Castro's arrival into Havana. Latour, a Cuban himself, spares neither the American mob nor the corrupt Havana power-players from blame in his depiction of a country which was taken over by Castro because everyone else in Havana was out for himself.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 6 reviews


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About the Author:

Jose LatourJose Latour was born in 1940 in Havana, Cuba, where he won his first literary prize at the age of thirteen. Outcast was his seventh novel but the first written in English while he was still in Cuba. It was nominated for an Edgar Award.

He is the vice president of the Latin American division of the International Association of Crime Writers.

He lived in Havana until August 2002. At that time his novel Outcast was translated to Spanish and published in Spain. When he was invited to go on a publicity tour, he asked that they invite his whole family (including the adult children). They stayed in Spain until their emigration to Canada was cleared. He now lives in Toronto.

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