Magazine article Newsweek

Our Man in Havana

Magazine article Newsweek

Our Man in Havana

Article excerpt

Even in Havana, where grinding poverty and surreal beauty go hand in hand down every street, where mint condition '50s sedans oddly complement the dilapidated buildings with their bubble-gum colors and laundry flying from every window-- even here, the Palacio Viena stops you in your tracks. A dark, almost sinister building in the oldest part of town, the Palacio was once a grand hotel. Now its giant front door gapes like the maw of a cave. Terra-cotta vines choke the rococo facade. "This was one of the first things I saw when I started coming down here in the early '90s," says novelist Martin Cruz Smith, standing in the dusty street, staring up at the building. "It struck me as enormously evocative of some past glory," said the 56-year-old writer. "Cuba is an island floating just out of reach, like a dream you had and you remember bits of that dream and you want to get back to it."

The first time Smith saw the Palacio, there was nothing inside but a light bulb hanging down and a VW Beetle sitting in an empty lobby. He put both building and Beetle in his new thriller, "Havana Bay" (Random House). As you stand there beside him, you think, well sure, anyone could see the possibilities here. All Smith did was find it first and then lead you right to it. That's all he's been doing, in his quiet but extraordinarily talented way, for two decades, in a string of bestselling thrillers that began with a bang with 1981's "Gorky Park." Smith is one of those writers who get such high-mindedly good reviews that you wonder if he's any fun. Relax: he's literate and exciting--think Joseph Conrad on amphetamines. And sending his fictional Moscow police detective, Arkady Renko, to Havana on a missing-persons case was an inspired stroke. The missing man does surface, but not before Renko stumbles across a plot that produces at least four murders and finally reaches all the way to Castro himself. …

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