Monday, January 29, 2007

#9 - Havana Best Friends

As much as I didn't want to, I had to put down The Master and pick up Havana Best Friends this weekend. There was a slight chance that I might get to interview Jose Latour for work and I needed to be prepared just in case (which also included reading his latest book Outcast, which comes out in February, review tk).

For any of you more familiar readers of MTRH, you'll know that I don't read a lot of mysteries and/or thrillers. It's not because I don't enjoy them, it's more because my tastes tend more toward the literary and less toward the commercial in fiction, which isn't meant to imply anything at all in terms of the quality of the writing. However, I think that Latour manages to cross over the boundary from the commercial to the almost-literary exceptionally well, and this book is a mixture of all kinds of influences.

I think the recipe for Havana Best Friends starts with a few cups of good spy fiction like John le Carré, it's flavoured slightly with a bit of the bombastic nature of Robert Ludlum, then all the ingredients are tossed around with Law and Order for a minute to see what sticks, and to taste, just add a hint of Mankell. Presto! You've got the novel. Yet, even though you can compare it to many titles, the style is Latour's own: brazen, bold and sometimes funny (with a wickedly blush-worthy sex scene), the book takes you along for a ride and never really leaves you behind, and I think that's his key skill as a novelist.

The implausible plot actually works and there wasn't a moment where I said, "Oh come on!" In short, there's a fortune hidden in the walls of an old Havana apartment. Put there by a wealthy follower of Batista before Castro's revolution, the son of the man wants to reclaim his treasure. But it's not as easy as it seems because there are people living in the apartment, and now the question becomes: does the fortune exist and, if so, how do they get it?

What follows is a tense, even chilling, thriller that winds around the central mystery until the book's satisfying conclusion. As the Cuban entry in my Around the World in 52 Books challenge, I'm happy to say that Latour's descriptions of the place, of the people, and of the country itself did give me a sense of what life is like there. And I did enjoy that some of the places Latour talks about, I'd seen, so it felt real to me in that way too. This book didn't pass the heartbreak test, but I enjoyed it anyway. It was perfect reading for a cold January afternoon.

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