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Onyx reviews: Havana Bay by Martin Cruz Smith

Cuba, a country that has been the focus of national attention lately, is still an enigma to many. It is certainly a mystery to Russian detective Arkady Renko in Havana Bay. He has used his own money to fly to Cuba to investigate the disappearance and apparent death of one of his friends, Sergei Pribluda, officially a sugar attaché but possibly a Russian spy.

Renko and Pribluda first appeared in Gorky Park, where the two Russians began more as rivals than allies. Renko is a somber man who takes his work very seriously. A body, purportedly that of Pribluda, was found floating on an inner tube in Havana Bay, a common mode of transport for local fishermen, known as neumáticos. The coroner is eager to have Renko confirm the man's identity so that he can close the file, attributing the death to a heart attack. Renko realizes that the only way to keep the case alive is to refuse to cooperate. The body's advanced state of decomposition helps Renko stretch things out.

The indifference of the Cuban police, their unwillingness to investigate the death as anything other than natural causes, frustrates him. Relations between Russia and Cuba are strained. Their once-intimate alliance no longer exists and the Cubans have little time for Renko and his Russian problems. They are anxious to close the case and have Renko on board the next flight back to Moscow. Cuba has remained true to Communism; Russia hasn't.

At the beginning of the novel, Renko is depressed. His wife is recently deceased and he is about to take his own life when a Cuban interpreter from the Russian embassy tries to stab him. Taken by surprise, Renko lashes out and kills his assailant. "All you had to do was wait," Renko comments wryly to the corpse of his attacker.

The assault jolts him out of his fugue and he investigates Pribluda's death with renewed vigor. Renko speaks no Spanish—a serious handicap—but he finds an unwilling ally in Cuban detective Ofelia Osorio. At first, she tries to keep Renko from going too far with his inquiry, but she slowly finds herself drawn into the complex mystery.

The harder everyone tries to discourage him, the more obstinately Renko persists. He learns about some of Cuba's fringe groups and secret societies: the pagan Abakua and Santeros, and the mysterious Havana Yacht Club. As Renko traces Pribluda's movements, he encounters a diverse group of characters: two wanted Americans in hiding, an aspiring ballet dancer who believed that Pribluda—and now Renko—could be her ticket to Moscow, and a pair of Cuban prostitutes. He suspects a conspiracy that may lead to Castro himself, but he still doesn't know why Pribluda is dead, if he really is.

Smith's writing is compelling and his characters are well drawn, motivated and complex. He breathes life into even the minor characters. Smith—through Renko—unravels the sequence of events one morsel at a time until an array of seemingly unrelated details comes together to reveal the big picture. He paints a detailed portrait of modern Cuba, with its combination of Caribbean and eastern European influences. He presents an even-handed description of its foibles and idiosyncrasies by using the eyes of an outsider (Renko) and also of someone who has lived within its strictures all of her life (Detective Osorio). Renko's disdain for some of the country's more frustrating aspects slowly melts away until by the end, if circumstances had been different, one might imagine Renko at peace, floating on an inner tube with his fishing line dangling into Havana Bay.

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