Friday, September 22, 2017

The Book You Have to Read:
“Where Murder Waits,” by E. Howard Hunt

(Editor’s note: This is the 151st installment in The Rap Sheet’s continuing series about great but forgotten books.)

By Steven Nester
As Richard Nixon’s presidency unraveled in 1973 and Watergate burglar/thriller writer E. Howard Hunt faced a stretch in federal prison, the marketing department of Fawcett Gold Medal Books thought to squeeze every penny it could from this notorious novelist’s oeuvre by reissuing Where Murder Waits, this time under his real name. First published in 1965, and attributed to the pseudonymous Gordon Davis, Where Murder Waits is a bitter rebuke to 1961’s failed Bay of Pigs invasion, which Hunt had had a role in planning while employed by the CIA. Although he tells no tales out of school and only reiterates some familiar gripes about the debacle, Hunt does describe the complications endured by dispossessed foreign nationals plotting a return to their Cuban homeland. With Fidel Castro’s regime firmly ensconced in Havana, however, the only intrigue that occurs is between members of the exile community who wish to unseat him.

Patrick Conroy is a man with a past. Born Patricio Conroy in Cuba, wounded and imprisoned after the failed expedition that landed at the Bay of Pigs on the island nation’s southern coast, Conroy is now a lawyer living under the radar in Miami, Florida. Battle injuries resulted in “a contained grace to Conroy’s movements that inspired desire in women and confidence in men”; and while he’s content, makes a “sturdy martini,” and enjoys a fulfilling bachelor love life, there seems to be something lacking in his existence.

Conroy’s reputation is known to former contrarrevolucionarios, and though he no longer has an active interest in taking up arms against Castro, he’s approached by an organization of displaced patriots—the Exile Committee—wishing him to take on a task. It seems money raised by the group for an insurrection has vanished from a Panamanian bank, along with the group’s treasurer. Conroy is asked to recover the cash, but he demurs. The next knock on his door is delivered by an FBI agent, who talks to Conroy about his possible Neutrality Act violations, which could result in his disbarment and a revocation of his U.S. citizenship. Conroy is incensed by the threats that agent has made against his liberty, something he figures he earned in combat. He observes that fewer exiles are willing to step into the breach, and is disheartened to see the zeal of counterrevolution diminish among members of the exile community. To many of them, Cuba is simply the place their parents once lived, and Conroy sees the “younger generation maturing in an alien land and accepting exile as a fact of existence.” Feeling the anger of exiles who are harassed for their patriotism and grit, Conroy finally accepts the mission to track down that lost money.

The Cuban Revolution (1953-1959) turned various South and Central American capitals into settings resembling Casablanca during World War II, and as Conroy travels between Florida, Panama, and Brazil, he must tread lightly and mind his manners. Any insurgent group operating in a foreign country is suspected of trying to bring revolution or unwanted attention to that region, and from the time he boards an airplane for Panama, Conroy is under surveillance not only by foreign agencies, but also by the CIA. In addition, someone close to the bank theft is attempting to thwart Conroy, starting with an attempt on his life in Miami. Since it’s obvious that the theft was an inside job, Conroy’s mission becomes tricky when every insider who had access to the Exile Committee’s money is murdered.

A visit to the Panamanian bank where that dough had been deposited leads nowhere. However, a break that will resound through the remainder of this novel comes when Conroy discovers Javier Ruiz tossing his hotel room. A legendary anti-Castro guerilla, better known as El Machete, Javier was believed to have died during the failed Bay of Pigs assault, but instead spent time in prison, just like Conroy. Javier says he was tipped off that Conroy had located the misplaced funds and was about to abscond with them to Cuba; he planned to stop Conroy. Javier’s anti-Castro credentials are bombproof, and Conroy sure could use his help—as he could that of Javier’s comely sister, Lola, whose husband did die at the Bay of Pigs—to complete his mission. Yet the siblings’ arrival on the scene seems all too convenient, and Conroy resolves to keep a close eye on the pair.

As he investigates, Conroy learns that the last man to hold the money he seeks exchanged it for a diamond, which was easier to transport than cash. When the gem dealer subsequently turns up dead, and the rock goes missing, Conroy must accept, dolefully, that even heroic Cuban freedom fighters are not immune from avarice. In fact, it’s Javier who has the diamond, and he intends to keep it as recompense for his betrayal and imprisonment in Cuba so many years ago. Further, he wants his sister, Lola, to flee with him to freedom. She refuses her brother’s entries, though, for she and Conroy have fallen in love. There is a bloody standoff between the trio, but justice is done—more thoroughly than might have been possible in real life, and this is the key to the complexity of E. Howard Hunt.

Say what you’d like about Hunt, but there’s no denying he was a man of some accomplishment. Biographical accounts suggest he lived out a quasi-James Bond fantasy, as he allowed many of his fictional characters to do. But among the tuxedos and tailored clothing was plenty of dirty laundry. For instance, Hunt devised a plot to overthrow the government of Guatemala in 1954, which resulted in countless deaths. He had a hand, too, in other clandestine and disreputable operations around the globe before the Bay of Pigs drove his espionage career into a ditch. When the chance to work for the Nixon White House came along, this suave spy became a “plumber,” and the rest is infamy.

In Where Murder Waits, Patrick Conroy is given the opportunity to assist—in a small way—a noble cause, and he succeeds. Through the character of Conroy, Hunt showed the world his espionage super-self (an image far superior to what he was becoming: a bungling intelligence has-been), and therein lies the fragile beauty of make-believe. Reality doesn’t always allow people to be viewed in the best possible light; mistakes are made, victories go unrecognized, aspirations are often not realized. Through fiction, though, writers can imagine themselves as better than they are. Hunt was a rather prolific novelist, and he tended to cast his protagonists—and by reflection, himself—in the glow of patriotism, glamour, and triumph. It might have been a bitter pill for him to swallow knowing that, thanks to the Watergate scandal, history was much more likely to remember him (ignominiously) for his involvement in what Nixon’s press secretary, Ron Ziegler, called a “third-rate burglary.”

READ MORE:The Book You Have to Read: Bimini Run, by E. Howard Hunt,” by Steven Nester (The Rap Sheet).


Elgin Bleecker said...

Thanks for the post. Never read any of Hunt’s books, but just located a copy of this one.

Jeff Meyerson said...

I read several of his "David St. John" books, which were readable but nothing special IMHO.