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by Jose Latour
McClelland & Stewart, February 2008
384 pages
$22.99 CDN
ISBN: 0771046626

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

In OUTCAST, the thriller that introduced us to Elliot Steil, the former teacher and Cuban expatriate displayed considerable resiliency and an unanticipated toughness that allowed him to flourish in his new American setting. In this follow-up, these qualities are called upon again as he becomes embroiled in a complex plot involving large (and illegal) amounts of money and some very prominent Cuban government officials.

In true noir fashion, neither the reader nor Elliot himself will have a very clear idea of exactly how the plot is to work or why Steil has been inveigled into it until the very end, by which time bodies are littering the Miami landscape.

It all begins in 1996, when the extraordinary Colonel Victoria Valiente, a leading member of the Cuban counterpart to the FBI, who possesses a formidable intelligence and an epic libido, comes around to her husband's way of thinking the Cuban economy is crumbling along with Fidel's health and the prudent thing to do is to prepare for the new Cuba that will emerge after he dies, a Cuba in which money and power will be key.

Forward to 2002. Elliot, now a partner in his late benefactor's import business, is in a position to make a return visit to the land of his birth, bringing with him rather a lot of American dollars, as most Cuban expats do if they can. Before he can board the plane, agents from the CIA pull him over and threaten to have him arrested for carrying illegal amounts of currency into Cuba if he does not agree to act as their eyes and ears while there. Reluctantly, Elliot, having little choice, goes along.

His sentimental journey is only hours old when Valiente and her husband make contact with Steil, feeding him a yarn that is as transparently preposterous as a Nigerian email. As instructed, Steil plays along, reports to his handlers on his return to Miami, and hopes that there's an end to it. It isn't, of course.

The structure of the book provides Latour with ample opportunity to comment on contemporary Cuba and on the continuing cold war between it and America. As was the case in OUTCAST, he provides a warm and affecting account of the Cuban people, their generosity, and their deprivations and is equally scathing on the failures of the Cuban government, especially its head, whom he identifies only as 'the Chief.'

He also quietly underlines the frustrations and ineffectiveness of US policy toward tiny, tottering Cuba and the shortcomings of the American spy apparatus, which, for all its technical wizardry, cannot keep track of two faintly bewildered defectors in a suburb of Miami that is thick with CCTV cameras.

Fans of the spy thriller will appreciate the wheels-within-wheels plot that Latour juggles with satisfying dexterity. Noir enthusiasts will be entertained by his sly references to the masters of the American genre. But all readers are likely to remember the poignancy of the those moments of contrast between the lavishness of the United States and the poverty of Cuba, when Elliot outfits several children he picks up in the streets, when he brings gifts to his Cuban friends and relations that reduce them to tears or when the steely intellect of Colonel Valiente is staggered to discover that Miami is not 180 miles from Cuba but "one hundred and eighty light years away."

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, February 2008

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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