Peggy Blair worked as a Canadian lawyer for over thirty years, on both sides of the fence - defense and prosecution. A Christmas vacation in Havana, Cuba one year "where she watched the bored, young policemen on street corners along the Malecon, visited Hemingway's favourite bars, and learned to make a perfect mojito" provided some great inspiration for her debut fiction novel - The Beggar's Opera.
2006. Michael Ellis, a Canadian police detective from Ottawa and his wife Hillary head to Cuba for some warm weather over the Christmas vacation. Mike is also suffering some fallout from the death of his partner. There seems to be more to this story than we are intially led to believe. Their marriage suffers a blow when Hillary cuts her time short and heads back to Canada. Mike decides to drown his sorrows in one of Hemingway's favorite bars. But when he wakes up the next day, he can't find his wallet, has no idea what he did the night before.....and finds himself being arrested for the rape and murder of a young street boy. He remembers giving the begging child some pesos the day before - but murder....
Inspector Ricardo Ramirez of the Havana Major Crimes Unit has 72 hours to secure an indictment. He'll be moving fast on this horrific crime. And the possible sentence? The firing squad is still in use in Cuba. Mike's commander at home sends a female lawyer, Celia Jones, to Cuba to see if she can help Mike in any way.
The Beggar's Opera was such a great read on so many different levels. The setting itself was a major character. Blair brings to life a Cuba outside the confines of a tourist resort. A Cuba where "anything could be a crime if it served the government's objectives." Unauthorized internet access = a five year prison sentence. Renting a room to a tourist, insulting Castro, possessing tourist pesos and much, much more. Where bribery and corruption are rampant. A Cuba where the legal system is completely foreign to our Canadian sensibilities and weighs heavily in favour of the police. I think the most stunning example is the 'pre-dangerous' charge."The police could arrest almost anyone, even someone the merely considered 'likely' to be dangerous in the future." A Cuba where the poorest have access to a high degree of eduation, but children run hungry in the streets. Where soap and pencils are great treasures. I found myself running to the computer many times to follow up on a detail that Blair included. (Yes, Prime Minister Jean Chretien and Fidel Castro did open Terminal Three of the international airport in Cuba)
But the star of the show is Inspector Ramirez. He is a dedicated policeman and honest (but not above sampling the rum from the evidence locker) Ghosts of murder victims have recently begun following Ramirez. As a small boy, his dying grandmother promised that "The dead will come. My gift to you, as the eldest child." His friend and the local coroner, Dr. Hector Apiro says it may be a form of progressive dementia. Dr. Apiro actually runs a very close second for character I most enjoyed.
Blair has conceived an intricate, multi layered plot that kept me guessing until the very end. I was captivated by both the main story, and the players and their lives. I'm eager to read the second in this series. It looks like Ramirez may be coming to Canada to assist on a case.
The title? The Beggar's Opera is a ballad opera and Ramirez's favourite.
"An opera about political corruption, with a lively case that included well-bred whores with impeccable manners, men disguised as women, beggars, even prisoners. It was a story of poisoned chalices, violence, and revenge; false charges, even a threatened execution. But it was also about love and loyalty and above all, friendship."
And it's also a pretty apt description of Blair's book. Definitely recommended.