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Havana: An Earl Swagger Novel    by Stephen Hunter order for
by Stephen Hunter
Order:  USA  Can
Simon & Schuster, 2003 (2003)
Hardcover, Audio, CD

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Havana feels like a cross between something written by Lee Child and by Martin Cruz Smith, with overtones of Donald Hamilton's Matt Helm. There are snakes in the paradise that is Cuba in the summer of 1953. The Mafia sees it as another Vegas, full of lucrative possibilities. American corporations like United Fruit are anxious to protect their profits. The CIA is concerned about, and the Russians intrigued by, a charismatic, immature young lawyer named Fidel Castro.

Enter ex-Marine hero, current police officer, Earl Swagger. He's inveigled along on a trip to Havana by political pressure to accompany and protect an old, corrupt Senator. The CIA's hidden agenda is to turn him into their hit man to make a 'big noise' and deal with Castro - the man in charge seems to be tennis player/spy Roger St. John Evans, but Swagger has met his mild-mannered assistant, Walter 'Frenchy' Short, before, to his cost. To protect their interests, the Mafia send cop- and horse-killer Frankie Carbine to Havana, where he soon links up with Cuban Military Intelligence torturer Captain Ramon Latavistada. And the Russians resurrect Zek 4715 (Speshnev) from the Gulag, to protect and guide Castro.

The action, ambushes, and betrayals are unrelenting, and Earl Swagger is in the thick of it, all the while wondering what he is doing there ... 'He had no answers and the questions hurt.' Though on opposite sides, he and Speshnev find much in common, as old soldiers who have seen it all, dealing with smooth, young bureaucrats who play treacherous games. Speshnev saves Swagger's life and Earl reciprocates by sparing his enemy. Frankie has it in for Earl, blaming him for a Mafia murder, and Swagger's own side alternate between helping him and throwing him to the local wolves. He helps a lovely lady being harrassed by Hemingway, but is barely tempted by her interest in him.

Swagger is a simple man - 'the best, the strongest, the truest' - with an iron integrity, that is challenged by what he is asked to do and by his lifelong habit of loyalty, 'the compass mooring of his life.' He steers his own course through a tempest of double and triplecross, and eventually limps home, even older and wiser than before. It's a thrilling read with plenty of local color and a strong farcical element, as when Frankie Carbine worries about escaping before the Cuban police come and his buddy Ramon replies incredulously 'Senor Frankie, you forget. We are the police.'

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