In Stephen Hunter’s latest novel, the setting is the Cuban capital in the pre-Castro early ’50s. The city was more accessible back then but equally forbidden—America’s no-rules-apply destination for prostitution and gambling. US gangland families dominated the island’s “entertainment” industry with the blessing of the corrupt Batista regime, which was kept in power by the CIA, organized crime, and corporate interests.
Cuba was something less than a paradise to much of the native population, who suffered from poverty and the repressive dictatorship. But US agricultural corporations found cheap labor and big profits, so who cared about a little repression?
Into this turmoil comes battle-scarred Earl Swagger, an ex-Marine and World War II Medal of Honor winner now working as an Arkansas state-police officer. A central figure in three previous Hunter books, Swagger is tricked into a bodyguard assignment for a congressman who is mainly interested in Havana’s brothels. The CIA has other plans for Swagger’s talents. It wants him to assassinate Fidel Castro, a bright young attorney who is ineptly seeking reform and drifting toward revolution.
Unknown to the CIA, the gangland figure Meyer Lansky is trying to keep Cuba a rich mother lode for major mob families. Lansky also has flown in a hit man to take out Castro.
The KGB has its own man in Havana. Speshnev, a Spanish Civil War veteran, is a pro who is there to advise Castro, help him foment revolution, and keep him out of trouble. Like Swagger, he doesn’t play by anybody else’s rules.
This is one of Hunter’s best works since his earlier novels, whose central character was Bob Lee Swagger, Earl’s Vietnam War hero son and an accomplished rifleman. Hunter has a way of making a thriller something more. In Earl Swagger he’s created a man who is more than just a nonhero: He’s rigid in his beliefs. He’s patriotic, stubborn, undereducated, and not handsome. He doesn’t always make the right decisions, and it’s obvious that his stubbornness will eventually destroy him.
With Havana, Hunter—a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post movie critic—has moved carefully into the world of Graham Greene, indicating he’s capable of even more ambitious work ahead.