After he explored the Irish mob in The Westies and Paddy Whacked, it's apparent that T.J. English understands the shady world of organized crime. In Havana Nocturne, the acclaimed journalist and screenwriter sets his sights on Cuba.
During the late 1940s and early '50s, writes English, "Havana became a volatile mix of Monte Carlo, Casablanca, and the ancient city of Cadiz all rolled into one, a bitch'sbrew of high-stakes gambling, secret revolutionary plots, violent repression, and gangsterism." At the center of this was the upheaval surrounding the regime of Fulgencio Batista and the revolutionary rumblings of Fidel Castro. Equally important - as fans of The Godfather II will know - was the influence of the Havana Mob, whose stranglehold on casino, hotel and liquor businesses dictated much of Batista's policy and stimulated economic growth during the '50s.
The author deftly handles complex relationships among the mobsters: Charles "Lucky" Luciano, one of the first to hatch the idea of a global crime syndicate based in Cuba; leader Meyer Lansky, the financier from New York City; co-leader and sometime Tampa resident Santo Trafficante; and Joe Stassi, intermediary between the often at-odds Lansky and Trafficante.
Driven by the booming tourist industry, Havana's nightlife pulsed with music, dancing, liquor, drugs and sex, and English ably captures the colorful rhythms. He paints vivid portraits of the Tropicana, Sans Souci and other venues that attracted such icons as Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Graham Greene and Marlon Brando.
English's natural storytelling skills propel the narrative through to the Mob's ultimate collapse, as Castro took over and ushered in a new era of oppression. Those glitzy days may be gone, but Havana Nocturne is a worthy reminder of a unique saga of politics, culture and corruption.
Eric Liebetrau is the managing editor and nonfiction editor of Kirkus Reviews.
By T.J. English
William Morrow, 400 pages, $27.95
- T.J. English will be a featured author at the Times Festival of Reading Saturday.