Jose Latour

Harper Collins, £17.99

Reviewed by Philip Gooden

Havana Best Friends is an entertaining book with an awkward title. A cache of diamonds, death-bed confessions, and double-crossings make for an engaging caper. As Batista¹s regime was crumbling in the pre-Castro period, its corrupt supporters (i.e. all of them) stashed the valuables which they couldn¹t carry off. These particular diamonds have been nestling in a Havana apartment for more than forty years, unknown to the current occupants. They are a sharply contrasted brother and sister. He is Pablo, a seedy chancer who earns his dollars through pimping and video porn, while she is the beautiful and sympathetic Elena, a special-needs teacher.
The son of the Batista supporter, now a blind Vietnam vet living in the US and hearing his dying father¹s secret, recruits Bruce Lawson, another vet, as well as Spanish-speaking Rita to go to Cuba. Masquerading as husband and wife, the couple are to talk their way into the Havana apartment and get their hands on the treasure, by persuasion, subterfuge or force.
In this kind of story the only question is not if but when things will start to go wrong. Jose Latour has produced eight novels (this is the second written in English) and his expertise is shown by the way in which he causes the different lines of the narrative to intersect. Lawson is dogged by a killer whom he met during the dirty war in Nicaragua, while the Cuban brother and sister are haunted by their violent family history. On the trail of all of them is policeman Felix Trujillo, and a sympathetically presented bunch of investigators - overworked, demoralised but still fundamentally decent.
Havana Best Friends delivers some surprises as characters and careers come to an abrupt stop but the ending is relatively upbeat. Among the most intriguing aspects are the glimpses of Havana which Latour offers (without pushing them under the reader¹s nose): a city where each block has its government spy, where the US fridges are 50 years old, and where idealism and corruption are oddly mingled.