Our Man in Havana


Judging by his author photo, José Latour looks tough enough to give as much as he gets. Latour is a big-shot Cuban crime writer, and Outcast is his first book in English. It’s a cheap paperback original. I mean cheap as a compliment, like cheap women, cheap thrills. His prose is nothing fancy. He writes flat declarative sentences with a Hammettish veneer: “Steil thrust his arm out the window and opened fire. Three, maybe four seconds later, Steil realized the hammer was clicking on empty shells. . . . Breathing hard, [Steil] dropped the Colt on the passenger seat, shifted into gear, and turned the wheel to the right. . . . The van was ten feet away from the Lincoln’s hood when a second white man emerged from the driver door, gun in hand.”

The book’s setup is great: Elliot Steil, a fortyish Cuban schoolteacher, is approached by an American stranger who claims to be a pal of Steil’s long-lost father. To satisfy an emotional debt, the stranger wants to smuggle Steil to the U.S. aboard his yacht. Steil agrees. On page 35, the teacher is sitting on the deck of a snazzy yacht as it speeds through the night. On page 36, the stranger suddenly shoves Steil overboard. The boat sails away. The Cuban is left to drown in the Florida Straits.

Only he doesn’t. Next thing we know, Steil is in Miami, hankering for revenge. Ah, revenge, the big R, the great dramatic engine that has driven a hundred noirs before this one. Only Steil is not out for revenge for practical reasons—fellow hoods swiping his money and leaving him for dead like the setup in Richard Stark’s 1967 revenge-noir classic, The Hunter. Neither is Steil out to avenge the brutalization of his beloved as in Jim Harrison’s 1979 nasty little novelette, Revenge. For Steil, revenge is something that gives meaning to this listless low-rent Cuban’s life.

The solution to the mystery of why a stranger wanted Steil dead keeps you turning the pages. The Cuban background is great color. You’ll learn what a drag Cuba is with its food and electricity rationing. How Jimmy Carter flooded Florida with Cuban hoodlums. That “to have a sparrow” is a Cuban term for “feeling homesick.”

Put it all together and you have a swell little book. Outcast doesn’t transcend noir, but it isn’t trying to. Latour neither mocks the genre nor thinks he’s too good to load his book with a lot of nifty gunfights, kidnappings, and letter bombs.—