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