Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Fidel On My Mind

Funny how news stories hit different people differently. Word that Cuban President Fidel Castro has temporarily handed over the reins of power to his younger brother and designated successor, Raúl, while he undergoes intestinal surgery, has incited celebrations among Miami’s Cuban exiles, who seem to believe that the almost 80-year-old leader and perennial punching bag for right-wing U.S. politicians is on his death bed, and that his nearly half-century of control over the Caribbean nation is finally coming to an end.

Me? I immediately started thinking about Castro’s appearances in mysteries and thrillers. In how many such works has this long-lived head of state figured since he assumed power in Havana in 1959?

Right off the bat, I think of Stephen Hunter’s Havana (one of January Magazine’s favorite books of 2003). In that book, ex-Marine and Arkansas state policeman Earl Swagger is dispatched to Cuba in 1953 to bodyguard “Boss” Harry Etheridge, a rainmaking Southern congressman who wants to investigate the influence of New York gangsters at the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base, but winds up taking on the assignment to assassinate Castro before the then 26-year-old agitator can work his countrymen into an anti-capitalist frenzy that hurts U.S. business interests. All of this places Swagger in intriguing opposition to a fellow professional killer named Speshnev, a “rehabilitated” Russian who has been sent to Cuba to protect Castro.

Then of course there’s The Manna Enzyme, by Richard Hoyt (1982), a madcap thriller in which Castro--weary of wearing fatigues 24 hours a day, itching under his broad beard, and horny as hell for the black prostitutes who hang around 42nd Street--suddenly decides to escape his security tether during a rare diplomatic visit to the United Nations in Manhattan. He shaves off his whiskers, dons a natty three-piece suit, and waltzes out of his hotel one day, right under the suspicious noses of FBI and KGB agents. He embarks from there in pursuit of an Oregon scientist, Bernard Goldman, who’s discovered an enzyme that “would vastly extend the range and variety of food people could digest.” In theory, then, this enzyme would help eradicate hunger around the world. Castro hopes to take the manna enzyme back to his people, and be hailed a hero. Trouble is, though, that he isn’t the only one looking for Goldman--so are the heads of the CIA and the KGB, as well as a gorgeous but hardnosed English agent, all of whom are convinced that Goldman must be killed before his discovery destroys the economies of industrialized nations, built on growing and selling conventional foods.

Castro also appears in a pair of William F. Buckley Jr.’s espionage novels, both of which are set during the early 1960s and feature CIA agent Blackford Oakes: See You Later, Alligator (1985), which has Fidel playing a minor role, in comparison with that given to guerilla leader Che Guevara; and Mongoose, R.I.P. (1998), which recounts U.S.-supported assassination attempts against Castro and the 1963 murder of President John F. Kennedy, and is told in part from the Cuban president’s point of view. And Fidel numbers among the secondary cast of Ace Atkins’ noirish new novel, White Shadow, an engaging yarn that spins off imaginatively from the real-life 1955 murder of Charlie Wall, a criminal kingpin in Tampa, Florida.

Can anybody else out there add to this rundown of Castro performances in crime fiction?


Juri said...

There's a Nick Carter paperback OPERATION CHE GUEVARA (1969), but that's situated in Bolivia. Fidel could still be in it.

Marshal Zeringue said...

While he doesn't make a personal appearance on the page, my favorite novel in which Fidel figures is James Ellroy's great American Tabloid.