Customer Reviews: Havana Blue
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Anti-hero, Lieutenant Mario Conde of the Havana Police Department, known as "the Count," is suffering from a terrible New Year's Eve hangover. It is now New Year’s Day, 1989, and the Lieutenant thought he would have a long weekend free from work to recover. Wrong! Conde is sleeping it off when the phone rings loudly in his ear making the sound of a jackhammer sound like a lullaby. He is ordered, with urgency, to investigate the mysterious disappearance of Rafael Morin, chief of the Import and Export Company in the Ministry of Industry.The detective is given three days, max, to solve the case. Conde remembers Morin from their student days: "good-looking, brilliant, a reliable comrade who always got what he wanted," including Tamara, Morin's widow, and a girl Conde and his friends fantasized about back in high school. During the course of the investigation, the Lieut. discovers that Rafael Morin's rapid rise from a barrio kid to a wealthy businessman, (communist version - not that different from the capitalist version), holds at least one secret worthy of investigation. While pursuing the mystery in the decaying city of Havana, Conde confronts Tamara Morin. While working hard on this case, (3 days is not a long time), Conde has to deal with the girl of his dreams along with the dreams and the illusions of his youth.

Rafael Morín considered “an immaculate trustworthy comrade” had been reported missing by his wife the day before. It is inconceivable that Morin would defect, after all, a man in his position, has the opportunity to travel outside of Cuba frequently and thus, no reason to try to sail to the US in a rickety boat. The Count and his assistant Sergeant Manuel Palacios set out to interview the likely people who had last seen Rafael. Set in Havana, the story deals, cynically, with the corruption, control and massive disparities in wealth that make up the country. Conde works to find the truth about his comrade of old, (now a hero), who may not be all he appeared to be. The books cuts back and forth between Conde’s memories of high school and the present as he tries to figure out if the too-good-to-be-true Rafael Morin is really the upright comrade everyone says he is.

The rich characterizations and bittersweet remembrances of the good old days, 20 years before, play as great a role in the book as the investigation of a missing man...a very important missing man. Havana and Cuban politics are effectively woven into the story, as part of the atmosphere. Our protagonist is a bit of a loner who has a pet fish. The fish is probably all he can handle relationship-wise.

Padura uses the elements of a police procedural to criticize the political and social structures of the society in which the action takes place. "Havana Blue," is the first of the Cuban author's "Four Seasons Quartet" set in Havana in 1989. ( the title is from the English edition). The 3 other books in the series are: "Havana Gold," "Havana Red," and "Havana Black." The translator, Peter Bush, does a remarkable job of bringing the flavors, sounds and people of Havana to life. In Padura’s quartet, the plot is of relatively minor importance, although it certainly kept my attention. The author uses the narrative to provide a portrait of Havana and its people under a totalitarian regime that only allows the most basic forms of freedom. The rich characterizations and bittersweet remembrances of old times, 20 years ago, play as great a role in the book as the investigation. Havana and Cuban politics are effectively woven into the story, as part of the atmosphere.

I found "Havana Blue" hard to put down. It would make a terrific beach read.
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on July 3, 2007
I picked up Havana Blue in a small bookshop in NY a few weeks ago and was so impressed with the writing, I ordered the rest of the series plus Adios Hemingway from amazon (to get them as fast as possible). Padura is an incredibly gifted writer. The sensuality of his prose is visceral. I literally brewed coffee when reading about Lt. Mario Conde's attempts to get a good cup from his boss. I craved cigars again ... I took my wife out to a Cuban joint in Brooklyn for red beans and rice. I want to visit/live in Havana, at least for a while.

Padura has a genuine obsession (or was strongly influenced) with/by both Hemingway and Salinger and his writing is every bit as wonderful. He's a genuine wordsmith who I couldn't read fast enough. This entire series (the Mario Conde character) is very highly recommended. I hope Padura keeps going ... and Adios Hemingway--absolutely masterful.
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on November 4, 2013
I rarely read fiction these days, but I wanted to read the man who many consider is Cuba's best living novelist. You know early on what the mystery is about, and the details aren't that important. The excitement is in his writing style, not in the plot, and the rest of what's interesting is his view of Cuban society, his characters, and so on.

Cuba went through a period roughly from 1970-75 of mostly ceasing their criticism of the Soviet Union, and it seemed like Stalinist elements from the old Popular Socialist Party were gaining strength in many areas of life. This was reflected in the amount of censorship of art and literature, and is called by many Cubans "the five gray years." That situation began to end with the Cuban involvement in Angola, which was started, without consulting the Soviet Union, who would have tried to limit it. Then Armando Hart, who is very open politically and artistically was named the first Minister of Culture. I don't know what the title of his predecessor was, but he's hated by the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC), who are a pro-revolution, but non-governmental organization looking after the interests of artists and writers.

I mention this, because an event connected with such censorship is a central point in the lives of some of the main characters. And it's probably not a coincidence that he has a character, only mentioned in passing, who is named "Norberto Codina." There is a real person by that name who is a poet and the editor of La Gaceta de Cuba, which is the publication of UNEAC.

Leonardo Padura pushes the boundaries of what you can criticize in Cuba, and so does Norberto Codina. And that's good, because criticism within the boundaries of the revolution can only strengthen it (as opposed to the criticism of the so-called dissidents, who are mostly paid agents of the US Interests Section in Cuba).

I've pre-ordered The Man Who Loved Dogs, and I will read as many of the Mario Conde novels as I can get from my library. But first I will finish Visions of Freedom: Havana, Washington, Pretoria, and the Struggle for Southern Africa, 1976-1991 (New Cold War History).
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon May 5, 2013
The narrative has a choppy quality that threw me at first. But then I decided the staccato rhythm of the story might be symbolic - of the disconnect between youthful dreams and reality, between public image and private truth...

Lieutenant Mario Conde admires Hemingway (as does Padura). And like his idol, Mario is not living a healthy lifestyle. At age thirty-four, with two divorces behind him, he drinks too much rum and smokes two packs a day. He doesn't shave properly and dresses sloppily.

He's a very good detective. But he's just been handed a case he hates. A brilliantly successful party cadre has disappeared - and it's a man Mario knows and despises. Rafael Morin Rodriguez sprung from Mario's barrio to become a leader of Cuban industry. Rafael married Tamara, the girl Mario loved in high school and could never have. Maybe Mario is just envious. Certainly he's sick of hearing everyone sing Rafael's praises, as he goes on interviews seeking a clue to the disappearance.

I liked the Cuban ambience in this book. People call each other "comrade." Mario's boss has a romantic attachment to Havana cigars, which he smokes slowly and with orgasmic pleasure. And there's lots of male camaraderie and macho fascination with baseball. The male characters are obsessed with women, but it doesn't go much deeper than the appreciation of anatomy. This is not to say Mario has no heart. His heart is very evident in his relationships with old school friends.

Mario's repartee with his boss, subordinates and pals is lots of fun. And the investigation is engaging. Padura has a wry sense of humor that alleviates the gritty quality of the narrative.

Havana Blue appeared in 1991, first book in the Havana Quartet. I enjoyed all these novels, and recommend the whole series.
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on March 10, 2014
This is Padura's second book in his series about The Count, an obstreperous Havana detective wrestling with life questions during the Castro era. Havana Red was meant to be shocking. Blue is more sly, probing the dirty little secrets of communism--graft, favoritism, social climbing--every society has issues with its 1%. Like all great detectives, The Count plays his hunches and wrestles them to the ground, but Padura transcends the genre with superb internal dialogue as the detective comes to grips with himself and his failings. Read Red first to understand the man, the place and the time, then devour Blue.
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on May 20, 2016
What does crime look like on a tropical island isolated for two generations from its nearest neighbor, laboring under an authoritarian gerontocracy? Surprisingly (and, perhaps, disappointingly), it looks much like crime in that much richer, less tropical neighbor. This is the state of things in Havana Blue, the first installment in Cuban mystery writer Leonardo Padura's now-famous Mario Conde detective series.

Conde, a lieutenant in Havana's police force, is called on to track down Rafael Morin, a wheel in the Ministry of Industry who's turned up missing on New Year's Eve. Conde and Morin grew up together, and Conde grew to resent Morin for (a) being nakedly ambitious, and (b) swiping and marrying Tamara, Conde's high-school crush. You already know where this is going: in digging through Morin's affairs, Conde also digs through his memories of his youth and his lingering feelings for Tamara. Naturally, all is not what it seems to be.

Conde is a vividly realized character. We're immersed in his thoughts, feelings and memories (including copious first-person flashbacks) from page one. However, he's also a type. He has a drinking problem, still hangs out with bros he grew up with, and (like many of his literary ilk) doesn't seem to be able to hold together a relationship with a woman for any length of time. He grumbles about his superiors and takes advantage of Manuel Palacios, his long-suffering detective sergeant. Does all this sound familiar? Of course it does -- Conde is a Cuban Inspector Morse, except he listens to jazz (natch) instead of opera and does occasionally get laid. Still, he's an earthy, relatively okay guy to hang around with.

And that's what you'll be doing: hanging around. Conde spends a great deal of time eating or drinking with old friends. The cross-talk feels real and unforced, full of the kinds of jibes that people throw around when they've known each other for too long. Which is fine as far as it goes, but it usually doesn't have much to do with the case.

Indeed, the case is mostly something that interrupts Conde's socializing and philosophizing. The boss occasionally nudges him to get on with it, but otherwise there's little urgency displayed by anyone connected with the investigation. The only one who seems more than passingly concerned is Tamara, and then only to a certain point. Perhaps this is a byproduct of the setting: it's the tropics, and an island, and nobody's going anywhere very fast because there simply aren't that many places to go.

If so, that's the largest contribution the setting makes to the story. The island's peculiar politics play very little role in anything any of the characters do. The author drops place names regularly and you could follow Conde's travels with a good map of Havana, but unless you've been there you'll end up with only a hazy idea of what these places look like. You won't find the Cuban answer to Donna Leon's Venice or Alexander McCall Smith's Botswana here. This is for me the book's greatest disappointment: change the place names, cut down on people calling each other "comrade," and the story could just as easily be set in any other poverty-stricken, semi-corrupt tropical locale... Miami, perhaps.

I have to wonder if the translation is part of the problem. It's a UK production, and at times the prose feels clunky, but not in any consistent way that would indicate an underlying flaw in the original. Also, it's an exercise in cognitive dissonance to have these Cuban characters speaking like working-class Brits, something I never quite got over.

Havana Blue isn't a bad story; it's a very ordinary one, steeped in all the detective-story tropes that have become so familiar. It could be that I missed the point since I'm a gringo; perhaps Padura is writing in code, and Conde's rambles and flashbacks will bring knowing nods from a home-grown audience ("Ah, yes, it was just that way back then..."). Don't pick this up if you expect a Havana travelogue, or a twisty plot, or a lot of excitement. If you want to spend some downtime with Mario Conde and his crew, pounding Cuban rum while listening to vintage jazz or The Mamas and the Papas, then dive right in.
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on November 18, 2012
...of excellent mysteries set in Havana. In Mario Conde, Padura has created a fictional detective who sustains this kind of serial treatment by giving the reader a deepening understanding of his character, his city, his friends, his time.
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on February 21, 2016
In "Havana Blue" Leonardo Padura manages to do a number of things. Firstly he produces a clever police procedural and uses this form to reveal to his readers much about the layers of reality which Cubans have to shape their lives around - politically and socially. In giving his lead character a life beyond police work, Padura provides us entree into a range of settings all of which have a hidden dimension at first. Indeed we see more of Lieutenant Mario Conde as a friend, lover and son than we do as a cop. We also travel back in time and learn how young lives and hopes are twisted and broken by future forces and temptations leaving bitterness and disappointment. Yet life carries on and ordinary people find different ways to survive and celebrate the things that make us all human. Read in this way, this book provides the reader with insights and hope not normally associated with crime novels.
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on March 18, 2016
No, Havana Black is *not* anything like James Lee Burke (See Publishers Weekly). The translation is awkward, having no natural flow to it, unnecessarily ornate and fraught with erudite vocabulary that is just not quite right. And I could not get a grasp of character, either through description or dialog. I agree with other reviews that there was just too much extraneous matter that neither advanced the plot nor contributed to character, almost as though Padura were attempting to write two different books. On the rebound, I started an Adrian McKinty novel; several characters were vividly sculpted, in few words, *within the first page*. Now *that* is writing. If you're really, really into Cuba, you might consider Padura, but surely there must be better, more atmospheric depictions of Havana.
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on June 9, 2007
Havana police lieutenant Mario Conde enjoyed the New Year's Eve celebration but he drank too much as he expected the day off to recover. Instead in spite of a four poster headache, his superior calls to tell him that Ministry for Industry official and party VIP Rafael Morin Rodriguez vanished.

Mario knew Rafael and the man's wife Tamara when the trio attended high school together and the cop was in unrequited puppy love for her. Hangover aside, Mario interviews Tamara, who offers nothing about what happened or why; instead she insists her loving spouse is an honest civil servant working for the benefit of the people. Although he prefers otherwise, Mario assumes either Rafael is dead or fled before a scandal destroyed him; either way the case has political ramifications that he knows he must gingerly walk carefully. However, the biggest issue in Mario's mind is not those looking at his every step in the investigation, but that the prime suspect is Tamara, who he still wants.

The third colorful Havana police procedural (see HAVANA BLACK and HAVANA RED) is a terrific whodunit starring a likable dedicated cop trying to investigate a maybe crime in a totalitarian society where he can easily follow a clue across a forbidden zone. Mario's investigation is top rate as he struggles with his feelings for the prime suspect and has even more trouble dealing with officialdom as the potential victim is a highly ranked bureaucrat. Readers will appreciate Leonardo Padura's tense Cuban mystery starring a great detective in a superior tale.

Harriet Klausner
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