International Crime Fiction Pick: Leonardo Padura’s Havana Noir Quartet

  • Post by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

Once upon a time, on the sixth floor of UT Austin’s Perry-Castaneda Library, where all the best international detective fiction on the UT campus resides, I first discovered Leonardo Padura’s Havana Quartet, featuring handsome, scruffy and jaded detective Mario Conde. I hadn’t realized that the dusty volumes I devoured between reading assignments were considered modern classics of Cuban fiction, nor did I figure out that, at the time, the books had just received their first publication in US markets – filled with details of Cuban suffering, they also signaled glimmerings of a future detente between Cuba and the US. Now that the Cuban miniseries adapted from the Havana Quartet has reached Netflix under the US title “Four Seasons in Havana,” U.S. audiences are primed to enjoy both the books and their skillful adaptation to the screen (US networks are rumored to have an English-language version in development). The actors bring to life characters I’ve known for years in books, and I can’t recommend the two in combination enough.

Each volume of the series contains a wry and complex portrait of a struggling Cuba in the 90s – after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the subsequent near-collapse of the Cuban economy, a bleak series of detective novels seems best to capture the nation at a time of increasing introspection and isolation. The series’ English-language titles each feature a color – Havana Red, Havana Gold, Havana BlackHavana Blue – and each is set in a different season.

Havana Red  explores the dangers and oppression faced by GLBTQ folks in Cuba, while Havana Gold takes Conde on a bleak investigation into the murder of a schoolteacher; Havana Black immerses the reader in the politics of exile after the murder of a returned expat, and Havana Blue takes Conde on a journey into the life of his murdered college friend, a man who got too much of what he wanted. A fifth in the series, Havana Fever, explores the rare book industry while taking a closer look at Conde’s past writing ambitions. Oddly, the series was released in the US in a different order than in Cuba, which hopefully indicates that one can enjoy the series in any order.

Leonardo Padura writes soulful, gritty dramas, set on the streets of Havana, as sympathetic and unrelenting to his characters as David Goodis or Simenon in his wartime novels. Along with literary crime writers Juan Gabriel Vasquez and Roberto Bolaño, and the crime-writer-turned-revolutionary Paco Ignacio Taibo II (the two writers share in common a fascination with the murder of Trotsky, covered by Padura in The Man Who Loved Dogs and Taibo in Four Hands)  Padura is one of the most prominent detective novelists in Latin America, beloved in several languages. Click here for more recommendations of Latin American crime writers. 

His protagonist, Mario Conde, is sick of the fading revolution (as are many of his friends) but he’s still ready to fight for his own moral code – which may or may not line up with that of his superiors. This reflects Leonardo Padura’s own careful existence in Cuba. As John Lee Anderson pointed out in a 2013 New Yorker article on the famous Cuban writer, “Padura is an unusual figure in contemporary Cuba: a novelist, a journalist, and a social critic who has skirted punishment by the ruling Communist Party…Padura isn’t a dissident, in the way of Solzhenitsyn, but neither is he just an entertainer. For Cuba’s intellectuals, and for its professional class, a new Padura book is as much a document as a novel, a way of understanding Cuban reality.”

Anderson says it there better than I could, but I’ll add that reading Padura’s characters are like looking at an Annie Liebowitz photograph of a wrinkled subject. Each imperfection – because it is loved, respected, skillfully captured, and intimately understood – becomes beautiful.

You can find copies of Padura’s Havana Noir series on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

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