By Donna Marchetti | Special to the Star-Telegram
Earl Swagger’s in a heap of trouble. It’s 1953. Holed up in a tiny room in a Havana slum, with no weapon but a small paring knife, Swagger waits as the Cuban secret police and their gangster friends close in on him. Creaking floorboards betray the presence of at least three men, and he knows they’re armed to the teeth. Outside, the army has blockaded the street at either end, its soldiers ready for the kill.
Swagger presses up against the wall, ready to pounce, determined to take out at least one man before he’s mowed down. Slowly, a thin blade appears in the door crack. It works its way up, feeling for the lock. In one silent, quick motion, the lock is released and the door begins to open.
How will Swagger get himself out of this pickle? Just leave it to the deft pen of Stephen Hunter, film critic for The Washington Post and author of 12 novels, including several thrillers featuring the steel-nerved, sharp-shooting hero Earl Swagger.
This time Swagger, an ex-Marine and Arkansas state cop, has taken an assignment in Cuba, where he is charged with protecting Arkansas Congressman Harry Etheridge during his investigation of Mafia activity on the island. Cuba, particularly Havana, is a hotbed of corruption, with everyone from the Mob to giant American companies like Domino Sugar and United Fruit vying for control of the Batista regime, thus ensuring a steady flow of cash northward. Straight-arrow Swagger finds himself immersed in the tangle of power moves and intrigue, steeped with a heavy dose of vice.
Into the mix comes a young, hotheaded rebel named Castro, here portrayed as vain, inexperienced and oddly slow-witted. But his appeal to fellow Cubans is undeniable, and he quickly becomes a pawn in the Cold War battle between the Americans and Soviet communists. Swagger, ever the defendant of red-blooded Yankee values, is coaxed into a plan to assassinate Castro and keep the power in the hands of Batista and his American friends.
But rules of fair play don’t apply here, and Swagger finds himself betrayed by those he thought he could trust. A hunted man with no one on his side, he turns to an unlikely ally who in any other circumstances would be a mortal enemy.
Hunter’s writing is taut and sharp-edged, vividly capturing the sleaze of 1950s Havana, the brutality of Batista’s henchmen, and the pragmatic grittiness of reluctant hero Swagger. There’s plenty of gunplay here, raw and graphic: “Bullets pierce glass, or atomize it, tossing geysers skyward, smearing windshields with a blur of hazed webbing, they sing through steel with a whang, they deflate tires, they shred roofs, they pop doors, they make the cars shiver and rattle and then settle.”
The cast of characters includes a few real-life figures such as Mob boss Meyer Lansky and gangster Ben Siegel. A churlish Ernest Hemingway even makes a cameo appearance. Among the most interesting fictional characters is the darkly ironic figure of Speshnev, Soviet graduate of the gulag school of hard knocks, sent to save the impulsive Castro from himself. Then there’s the Cuban military torturer Latavistada, known for his skill with a scalpel, who proves to be Swagger’s ultimate adversary.
The outcome? Suffice it to say, there’s good reason to hope we haven’t seen the last of Earl Swagger.
Havana by Stephen Hunter
Simon & Schuster, $25