Leave it to Manuel Ramos to drop a wry pun in the subtitle of The Golden Havana Night.
It’s “A Sherlock Homie Adventure,” we are told, and it’s such a winking and witty reference you have to wonder how or why nobody else dreamed it up before.
Both Holmes and the term “homie” go back to the late 19th Century, what took so long for a writer to mash them up?
This particular homie is Gus Corral, first introduced in Ramos’ 2013 novel Desperado. The brass plaque on his office door says Augustin Corral—Investigator. But he is also an ex-con and he is still earning his private eye stripes and finding his bearings on the occasionally mean streets of Denver. Gus gets his office furniture from Goodwill. (This is no Sherlock Holmes pastiche.)
“It’s no news flash that ex-cons weren’t usually at the top of the list of likely-to-be-hired, no matter what the job might be,” Gus tells us. “I thought I was good at what I did; a bit more experience and I’d be excellent, I told myself on those days when no one called, no one stopped by the office.” Corral is a survivor and he is trying to shake the “prison paranoia.” He tries to not always assume the worst about people. Afterall, he makes a living on other people’s troubles.
The latest client with troubles is none other than Cuban defector Joaquin “Kino” Machaco, who walks into Gus Corral’s office with no appointment. He’s the highly paid all-star center fielder for the Colorado Rockies and he’s quite insistent that Gus is the right guy for the job at hand. “The ballplayer loomed over me like a gorilla about to smash a termite nest. I pushed back my chair to open breathing space between the surprise visitor and me.”
Kino needs to have $500,000 ferried to Cuba. Kino’s brother Alberto left Cuba at the same time as Kino but is in debt to a mobbed-up dude named Miguel “Hoochie” Almeida. To complicate matters (why not?) Kino happened to have killed Hoochie’s brother before he defected. Since wire transfers to Cuba don’t work and since Kino is no position to make the trip himself, he is asking Gus to head to Havana with Kino’s brother and make sure the pay-off happens.
More importantly, to “make sure nothing goes screwy.”
Spoiler alert: it does.
Despite warning from one sister, Gus heads south. Within hours of landing in Cuba, there is a barrage of bullets, a hideous and bloody van-versus-ox crash, the precious money goes missing, and Gus wakes up in a room stretched out and shackled to a bed. And thus begins Gus’ efforts to sort through the true nature of his captors, who claim official government status, and to decipher the complicated world into which he’s been tossed, a world where “everything is a secret and yet nothing is a secret.”
Not starting from a power position even in his home country, Gus is now trapped by unknown forces in a foreign land and the situation calls for Gus to go with the flow, which leads to a road trip to Trinidad and some keen observations of the colorful Cuban countryside, along with a sampling of rum and cigars along the way. This section is contemplative and pastoral, with Gus trying to suppress his relentless paranoia. Gus is ever alert and wary, but savvy enough to take advantage of the opportunity to absorb Cuba and also figure out the true nature and intentions of those around him. There are observations about cultural and language differences and the changing face of Cuba, too. The radar Gus developed in prison proves handy, so does what he learned from all the prison-time reading.
Some aspects of the Cuban case wait for resolution after Gus returns to Denver. Those loose ends get wrapped up in startling fashion. There is also challenging subplot, involving bad cops in Denver, that causes significant “wear and tear” on Gus’ psyche. The parallel case practically begs for a college-level essay comparing and contrasting police corruption in Cuba and any good old American city. In Ramos’ hands, however, this is done in subtle style and is underplayed. Story first, lecture never. The writing is cool and down to earth. We sense the streets and Gus’ growing unease. Snaking throughout the whole book is the dark business of random drivers being shot and killed along the I-25 corridor.
This is Gus Corral’s world and it can get messy. The Golden Havana Night carries a deliciously organic flavor. The writing is rich, but not overdone. The pages fly. Supporting players, such as Gus’ two opinionated sisters, are developed with care. At the end, of course, we all want Gus Corral back as soon as possible to show us the city of Denver, or anywhere else in the world, through his jaded, homie eyes.
Q & A with Manuel Ramos and Review:
The Skull of Pancho Villa and Other Stories
Review (for the New York Journal of Books):
Pingback: 2018: Top Books | Don't Need A Diagram