Havana, by Stephen Hunter. Simon & Schuster. 416 pages. $24.95
Preparing to eat a cockroach he won playing cards, a cadaverous prisoner in Stalin's frozen Siberian Gulag muses that the roach would be delicious sauteed en beurre with a complex red wine, perhaps a St. Emilion '34 or '35.
"Why red?" he asks himself, and then answers: "Because red goes with meat. A cockroach certainly [isn't] fish, of that you may be sure."
With that savory bit of whimsy, Stephen Hunter introduces Comrade Speshnev, a brilliant and impishly unpredictable Communist revolutionary who is sprung from the Gulag in 1953 and dispatched to Cuba. There, Speshnev becomes the Soviet handler of a charismatic - but totally undisciplined and unrealistic - young revolutionary named Fidel Castro.
At the same time, in Arkansas, legendary state policeman and Medal of Honor winning sniper Earl Swagger is being recruited to be the CIA's man in Havana with the opposite mission: to kill Castro, should he actually develop a following (seriously in doubt at the time).
Having set the stage for this ambitious historical thriller, Stephen Hunter peoples Havana with a peppery mix of Cuban pimps and prostitutes; a bloodthirsty secret police torturer, Ojos Bellos ("Beautiful Eyes"), who specializes in surgically removing eyelids during leisurely interrogations; ugly-American businessmen; and Ivy League CIA agents who actually say "boola-boola," along with a dimwit Mafia hitter exiled from New York for murdering a cop's horse. Oh, and Ernest Hemingway, who sloshes in for a memorable bar brawl.
It's a Runyonesque cast on a real-life fantasy island, Batista's smoldering 1953 Cuba, where the cash crops are bananas, sex and sugar, controlled, respectively, by United Fruit, Meyer Lansky and Domino. The CIA's secret mission, loosely deciphered, is to keep it that way.
Then comes Castro.
And one surprise in this carefully researched story is that Castro was anything but inevitable. Indeed, Castro's revolution is a series of bungling missteps exceeded only by those trying to stop him. As things spin out of control, Speshnev needs to kill Swagger before Swagger kills Castro.
Despite the occasional odd cadence of 1950s dialogue, Havana succeeds as a rollicking period piece, with plot twists as sudden as tropical showers. And because nearly everyone who can grab a gun - or knife or bottle - is hellbent on whacking Earl, mainlining Swagger fans will enjoy the customary dose of mayhem. Hunter is a virtuoso of violence, and in Havana, tension is heightened by the nagging fear that Swagger himself might finally fall victim to the author's compulsion for realism.
Even with all the shoot-'em-up, Hunter has serious purpose, and his fascination with the dictates of duty rises to a new level in Havana. Since Swagger and Speshnev are essentially mirror images, both true-believers, Hunter is able to explore the inevitable danger to talented, principled people ill-used by plodding, self-serving - and ultimately treacherous - government agencies. In the end, these two arch-foes have everything in common - except ideology.
Finally, even though Havana is labeled "An Earl Swagger Novel," Hunter's signature character is routinely upstaged. From the time Comrade Speshnev materializes in a Cuban prison cell, masquerading as a vacuum-cleaner salesman and saving Swagger from killer convicts, the wispy cosmopolitan Communist steals every scene.
David W. Marston is author of Malice Aforethought, an analysis of abuses in law practice, and co-author of Inside Hoover's FBI, with Neil J. Welch. He was U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania from 1976 to 1978, and is now a lawyer in civil practice.