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King Bongo
Alfred A. Knopf
306 pp.



Tropical Noir
Thomas Sanchez's King Bongo

Thomas Sanchez is a superbly intelligent writer immersed in his genre’s traditions, and King Bongo will satisfy noir enthusiasts and literary types alike.

King Bongo, Thomas Sanchez’s new tropical noir novel, opens with stylishly lit atmosphere and quickly moves to a big bang. Literally.

King Bongo, a young, handsome Cuban-American who sells insurance and works as a private investigator on the side, is cruising in his Oldsmobile Rocket 88 convertible, listening to a rumba tune and admiring the moonlit landscape. “He loved this drive out of Havana headed for the Tropicana, past the centuries-old mansions facing the sea,” Sanchez writes, “fanciful three-story palaces with gaily colored facades of pillars and balconies, cheek by cheek with each other, like old tarts posing for a group reunion shot in the glare of tropical sunlight, shining with a glamour that refused to fade away.”

It’s New Year’s Eve, 1957, and King Bongo, Sanchez tells us, feels that luck is “headed his way.”

So much for a private dick’s prescience, eh?

Sanchez’s readers, who operate from a more privileged level of omniscience, know something bad is coming when the warnings—some mystical and some more aggressively physical—that Bongo stay out of the Tropicana start piling up. He ignores them, of course, leaving the nightclub only long enough to collect a rare orchid for his private collection. (When did Bogart ever collect orchids?) He comes back in time for the countdown to the New Year…and that’s when the Communist rebels’ time bomb explodes, killing Bongo’s girlfriend instantly. Once the chaos settles down, Bongo discovers that his sister, who had been performing on stage as the intoxicating black Panther, has disappeared.

Bongo is unhappy about his girlfriend’s death, of course, but he’s downright distraught about his sister’s disappearance. For reasons I won’t go into here, Bongo is obsessed with his sister, and he soon finds himself locked in a struggle with a captain in Cuba’s secret police to find her first. (For reasons I won’t go into here, the secret-police villain is also obsessed with Bongo’s sister.)

That sounds like a good plot, right? Sanchez knows his noir, though, and noir plots are nothing if not convoluted. So Sanchez tosses in a political plot element that ties in nicely with the novel’s time and setting: a colorful hit man named Johnny PayDay has been brought down to Havana to kill the assassin Cuban revolutionaries have hired to kill President Batista, and—you guessed it—Bongo finds himself tangled up (unwittingly) in it.

Still not satisfied? How about that noir standby, the femme fatale? Sure, why not: the day after the Tropicana bombing, Mrs. Armstrong, a wealthy, blond woman of mystery, hires Bongo to discover why her husband’s affections for her have dwindled. Ever the skeptical detective, Bongo takes the case because it gives him a chance to spy on both the husband and the wife. Like Bogart (or Jack Nicholson in Chinatown), Bongo knows how to play along with clients without falling for their stories.

Squeezed into a short multi-plot summary, King Bongo certainly sounds familiar—nothing more than a noir pastiche, right? But its settings, characters and thematic development keep it fresh. Sanchez beautifully captures corrupt, soon-to-collapse Havana’s high-stakes gamblers, Mafia types and bloated Hollywood stars soaking up the sun and rum. Their broadly drawn eccentricities keep the novel fun, line by line. The hit man Johnny PayDay and Betty, his impossibly dim but buxom wife (who likes to quote from popular musicals), are worth the price of admission alone.


Betty looked down. Her dress was halfway up above her knees. She liked looking at her knees, round and plump as two peaches in a basket. Maybe she could get a suntan on them if she and Johnny stayed here long enough. Sometimes their stay was long, sometimes short, she never knew in advance. That was one of the exciting things about her husband’s job; he wasn’t a nine-to-fiver. Her knees were nice, but between them was another lovely sight that intrigued her. The top of the barstool was upholstered in bright raspberry-colored Naugahyde. Shot through raspberry were flecks of bright glittery stuff, like flecks of real gold. She liked the idea of it, a raspberry-gold sherbet. She wished she could get lipstick that color, she already had every other shade. Maybe she could get that color in the hotel gift shop. She could ask them if they had “hot raspberry-gold swirl.” She couldn’t stop staring; she liked the idea of sitting on something that looked good enough to eat. Everything in Cuba was so colorful. She wanted to stay.

“What are you gawking at?” Lizard cut into Betty’s thoughts.

She turned her eyes up to him and sang. “Chicks and ducks and geese better scurry, when I take you out in my surrey, with the fringe on top.


For all the secondary characters’ fun, though, Bongo remains the novel’s most compelling and complicated character. He is in between two worlds: while he sells insurance to Americans, Brits and Canadians, he also empathizes with Havana’s poor because he came from its impoverished majority. “He understood those who tried to crawl out of it by any means possible, to claw their way to a wage one inch over the poverty line,” Sanchez writes. “This was the tropical truth for most of those whose skins were black—African black, slave black, bondage black, sugarcane-cutting brute animal black, disposable black.” But Bongo


also knew the lush smell of success, the fragrant scent of a new stack of peso bills. He knew the look of well-fed cologne-slapped cheeks, the faces of those who held those stacks of cash in their tight fists. Cash was piled up in the Capitolio, in the casinos, in the fancy Art Deco office buildings and banks of Vedado, in the beach mansions of Miramar, in the four-hundred-year-old palaces of Old Havana. Bongo understood: A man was either a prince or a pig, born on the right side or the wrong side of the law. A man was either holding the shit end of the stick or someone else was.


Sanchez’s Havana is a combustible mix of opposites, but ironically, as it slides from a Mafia playground to a Communist sty in America’s eye, nobody sees its inevitable outcome. “Havana is the future,” Bongo tells Mrs. Armstrong. Leave it to a master of noir to let his characters walk so blindly into a grimly impending gloom.

—Review by Woody Arbunkle

Posted May 26, 2003



About the Author

Photo Credit: David Carr

Thomas Sanchez lived for many years in Key West, Mallorca and Paris, where the French Republic awarded him the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres. He is the author of Mile Zero, Day of the Bees, Zoot-Suit Murders and Rabbit Boss, which was named by the San Francisco Chronicle as one of the most important books of the twentieth century.



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