Havana Requiem, by Paul Goldstein

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Legal eagle Michael Seeley is on his last chance. His Manhattan law firm has warily agreed to take him back but his probation means reining in the waywardness and alcoholism that ruined his marriage and jeopardised his professional standing. One day he receives a visit from Héctor Reynoso, a celebrated Cuban musician, who requests that Seeley help him and fellow composers reclaim the copyright to their work. Their seminal music, which dates back to the 1940s and ‘50s and helped pave the way for the Buena Vista scene, is owned by fat-cat American producers and the Cuban artists have never been properly remunerated. “They use our music to sell frozen tacos! Mexican food!” Seeley is torn—to keep the partners sweet he should be notching up billable hours, not representing impoverished clients —but it isn’t long before he is in Havana tracking down Reynoso’s cohorts. When Reynoso goes missing the rules are changed and Seeley finds himself wrangling with the U.S. State Department, wrestling with the Cuban security police and falling for the charms of the beguiling Amaryll.

Havana Requiem is Michael Seeley’s third outing and Paul Goldstein deserves plaudits for steering the legal thriller away from familiar Grisham-territory. The depiction of the seamier Havana reality, not its soft-focus picture-postcard flipside, is enthralling. The missing-royalties plot makes a refreshing change from those standard-fare hot-shot courtroom dramas (and as a Stanford law professor whose academic achievements include treatises on U.S. and international copyright law, Goldstein has all the credentials to make it ring true). Seeley is essentially a good egg—dogged rather than ruthless, driven by a yen for justice not personal gain—though at times that goodness dilutes him, leaving behind a bloodless blandness.

He perks up again for us when he is flailing in Havana. “You do not understand Cuba,” a native tells him. He doesn’t even understand the language. In Our Man in Havana Graham Greene highlighted Wormold’s fish-out-of-water status by labelling him “a permanent tourist,” despite being resident there for years. Seeley is a temporary tourist, but Piñeiro, a bully-boy police lieutenant, thinks he is an American agent and interrogates him. When Seeley learns that it was in fact Castro’s government that expropriated the music rights he begins to wonder if Piñeiro has a deeper involvement. The novel becomes interesting the more Goldstein obfuscates the truth. Who is deceiving whom? Who is left to trust? Might even the mysterious Amaryll have a hidden agenda?

Goldstein clings to a tried and tested thriller formula. The hero, a moral guardian, is out of his depth in an exotic locale. There is a love interest, a reluctant ally and a villain. Back at the firm there is a stock rival who specializes in veiled threats. A requisite offshoot plot concerns allegations of Chinese industrial espionage but sadly Goldstein only scratches the surface. Several characters deflate before us when peppering their dialogue with silly snippets from their own tongue: Piñeiro believes Seeley’s story is patética, a poor charada, and itches to try out a sutil Russian interrogation technique; Amaryll talks of a girl’s vanidad, people being atractivo, and Seeley’s heróico spirit.

But again, as with Seeley’s insipidness, Goldstein’s portrayal of Havana comes to the rescue. There are many allusions to ghosts—the AWOL Reynoso is a fantasma—the most intriguing being a rant on the absence of Cuban rule: “There is no government here. Fidel is a ghost. Raúl is the ghost’s brother.” Later, Amaryll complains that Cuba is an occupied country, how “twenty years later you can still smell the Russians” and that the Tourism Ministry restores only colonial buildings—“The architecture of our occupiers!”

Seeley’s adventure is defiantly un-slick, occasionally mired in legalese and seldom gripping (the main murder occurs halfway though and until then Seeley collects signatures from old men). Also, and bizarrely for a lawyer, Goldstein neglects to provide any real burden of truth, instead having Seeley deduce by throwing out groundless accusations and hoping one might stick. And yet Havana Requiem still manages to entertain, thanks in part to that grimy local color, and the guessing-game that each slippery character insists on playing. Goldstein has mastered where the real excitement of a thriller lies—in this case, emphasizing the backstabbing machinations within the law firm over the physical brutalities meted out by the thuggish Piñeiro. If he could only crank it up a gear and tear himself away from that derivative formula to do his own thing then Michael Seeley will be more than welcome a fourth time around.

Malcolm Forbes' reviews and essays have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, the San Francisco Chronicle, The National, The Australian, The Daily Beast, the Quarterly Conversation and many other journals. Born in Edinburgh, he currently lives in Berlin. More from this author →