Havana to Miami: Crime Fiction Across the Straits of Florida
Leonardo Padura & Alex Segura talk about noir, hometowns, homelands, and how being a crime writer in Cuba has evolved.
July 15, 2019 By Alex Segura
If you have a passing knowledge of Latin American crime fiction, then you’re familiar with Leonardo Padura, author of the acclaimed Mario Conde detective series and arguably (though, it’s not a point you’d want to debate) one of Cuba’s best-known writers, full stop. He’s won numerous prizes for his fiction and has seen his novels translated into a dozen languages. In short, he’s a big deal. His iconic detective, portrayed in Padura’s beloved “Havana Quartet” of novels, leads readers through a modern, broken-down Havana, worn and weary under the Castros (mostly Fidel, later his brother Raul). Though Padura is unflinching in his presentation of Cuba, politics don’t weigh down the books in a heavy-handed way. Instead, we’re introduced to one of the tentpole elements of good serialized crime fiction—the city as character. Padura does for Havana what Chandler and Ellroy do for Los Angeles: gives readers a setting rife with contradictions, texture and unforgettable characters. He turns the Caribbean paradise into a hotbed of noir, with dark, menacing corners and a sense of dread and danger that’s hard to beat.
Padura’s latest, Grab a Snake by the Tail [originally published in Spanish in 2011 as la cola de la serpiente], reunites the author with his familiar creation, as Conde is forced to investigate a murder in the Barrio Chino, the battered Chinatown of Havana— outside of Conde’s usual stomping grounds. Conde’s asked to step into the case by his longtime crush, police colleague Patricia Chion. As Conde delves deeper into the murder of an elderly man, Pedro Cuang, he discovers that there’s more to the murder than first believed—including elements of Santeria and drug trafficking.
Like Padura’s earlier Conde adventures, the novel is doused in noir, and you’re immediately transported to a dank, mysterious city that is equal parts paradise and nightmare. Like the classic detectives Conde is patterned after, our hero soon discovers there’s more to this case than he first believed—and the dangers will drag him down into the darkest corners of the city, and his own psyche.
Article continues after advertisement
When I was asked to interview Padura, about a year ago, I entertained the idea with some trepidation. Like him, I write crime novels—except mine are set in my hometown of Miami, 200 miles from Cuba, in a very different world. My detective, Pete Fernandez, is Cuban-American, has never set foot in Cuba (until Miami Midnight, the final novel in the series), and was raised to believe Castro is the enemy of freedom. The dualities of our professions and lives intrigued me—Padura’s CV is much longer and more storied than mine, but the broad strokes are there. I was raised in “freedom” and he was not. At least that was the simplistic view I had before I got to speak to him.
My parents were born in Cuba, and they (along with their families) fled the island as Castro came to power. My mom’s birthday party—January 1!—was interrupted with news of the revolution. My grandmother, a local judge, had to flee her courthouse in the back of a friend’s truck. My grandfather, a part of the previous government, had to seek exile at a nearby embassy to avoid capture. Every Cuban-American has stories like these—tales of escape, subterfuge and rebellion. It defines who we are. This idea of displacement and of another “Cuba” in Miami has been ingrained in us since birth, and I vividly remember many days spent playing in my grandparents’ house, listening to Cuban AM talk radio, updating listeners on the latest news from across the water. Castro was bad, Miami was safe—there was no middle ground. We, as a people, longed for a return to A Time Before—without truly spending much mental real estate on what that entailed, and the problems that affected the island nation long before a bearded revolutionary took to the mountains.
But, as with anything, we begin to delve deeper into the beliefs that were drilled down into us as we get older, we start to question things. A few books come to mind, at least in terms of properly chronicling the combative, bloody history between the Miami exile community and Cuba proper—most notably, Ann Louise Berdach’s Cuba Confidential, and Cristina Garcia’s fantastic work of fiction, Dreaming in Cuban. This is a long-winded way of saying that, after some reflection, I felt ready and excited to talk to Padura, a man with whom I shared many things, in terms of background, writing and inspirations, but also someone who was in many ways the other side of the coin—a man raised in Castro’s Cuba seeing me, and my “Miami Cuba” in a different, perhaps equally conflicted way.
What I discovered, to my great surprise, was a friend. Someone who shared the same passion for the written word, who spoke the same kind of pitter-patter Spanish I grew up hearing and speaking, and someone who—like me—was loathe to get into a political debate over much-worn ground. He wanted to talk books, detectives, and writing. Leonardo and I ended up keeping in touch after this conversation, and—spoiler alert—I was almost able to get his famed detective, Mario Conde, to appear briefly in the pages of Miami Midnight, as an homage to one of Pete Fernandez’s inspirations. Legal stuff prevented it, but if you squint closely enough, you can figure out where he would have been.
Though the conversation didn’t become what I expected, nor the political debate some might hope for, the end result was much greater—and purer, I’d argue: two crime writers from similar backgrounds talking shop and sharing a love for the medium. I spoke to Padura during a brief stop in New York last year by phone. He’s a warm, thoughtful and focused man, who’s quick to point to his influences and remains humble and bemused despite his worldwide success.
Article continues after advertisement
Padura’s love for crime fiction sprung up in college, but it wasn’t until he started to earn a living reviewing mystery novels that the author thought to try his hand at writing his own.
“I studied at the University of Havana from 1975 to 1980. Before that, I’d dedicated my life to playing baseball, it was my passion, I wanted to be a baseball player. I always say that I had two careers, the academic career and my reading career,” Padura said with a laugh. “I read a lot of Agatha Christie, some John Dickson Carr, Sherlock Holmes, as a kid, but in college I became more selective in what I read. I think it was the discovery of Chandler that started my interest in crime novels and police stories.”
Padura landed a job as a literary critic for a Cuban cultural magazine, which brought him into direct contact with crime novels of the era. But it wasn’t until he attended a conference in Gijon, Spain—Semana Negra, or “black week”—that Padura felt his eyes were truly opened to the genre.
“It was a spectacular event with many important writers of the time. I came back to Cuba with a suitcase full of books,” he said. “I didn’t have money to buy books, but I came back with many that I’d picked up second-hand. That was when I decided to write my own detective story, which I started at the end of 1989—and I spent most of 1990 writing it. That became Pasado Perfecto, the first Mario Conde novel.” [Reprinted in the U.S. as Havana Blue.]
The story, in Padura’s view, was heavily influenced by those first detective novels—especially the famed detective/gastronome Pepe Carvalho series by Spaniard Manuel Vázquez Montalbán.
We both spoke about the power of the crime novel—of its ability to shed light on a given corner of the world, warts and all. But what of his process, I asked? Here in the United States, there are many paths to publication. I wondered just how different Padura’s was when he started, compared to his publication process today.
“Here in Cuba in the 80s there was a publishing system that was excessively generous, too many books were published, there were even published many detective stories written in Cuba by Cuban authors that were frankly horrible,” Padura said. “This changes in the 90s, where we see the beginning of a crisis. Before the fall of the Soviet Union, the first thing that stopped coming to Cuba, before the oil, was the paper, which was coming from the Soviet Union.”
It was around this time that Padura published his debut, during what the author describes as a strong “publishing crisis,” tied directly to the country’s paper shortage. Padura’s first novel, despite initially being approved by the cultural committee that determines which books are viable for publication in Cuba, ended up finding life via a small Mexican publisher. Padura’s work continued to gain traction and, after winning a literary award in Cuba, saw the publication of his second Conde novel, Vientos de cuaresma [Published in English as Havana Gold]. The third in the series, Mascaras [Published as Havana Red in English], found a publisher in Spain after Padura won the Cafe Gijon Prize, one of Spain’s most distinguished literary awards. This launched Padura’s long-running relationship with Spanish publisher Tusquets Editores, which, ironically, sees Padura’s work debut on the Spanish market before appearing in Cuba.
“I do everything possible for there to be Cuban editions of my work,” Padura notes. “For the Cuban to buy. This is important for two reasons: in Cuba books are not imported. Second, if books were imported, imagine how a novel like El hombre que amaba a los perros [The Man Who Loved Dogs] would do? That book costs 22 euros in Spain, which is basically a month’s salary for someone in Cuba. It would be impossible to sell here. That’s why I push for Cuban editions, editions that are not very high in terms of quantity and might not circulate as widely, but at least allow for me to be published here in Cuba.”
I note the irony of this, that he, as an author, had to gain acclaim outside of Cuba before making it possible for his work to appear in his own country. Padura didn’t seem bothered by this, taking a very accepting view of the Cuban publishing process. I wondered if I would feel the same way, having only known that structure myself.
“In Cuba, you have to look at the bigger picture to understand how peculiar the situation is there,” Padura said. “Remember, in Cuba, independent publishing houses do not exist. All the publishers have direct financing from the state. And, while there are certain institutions that do not belong to the state, they are financed by the state. So, sometimes it can be a bit complicated to publish a book. But until now I have been lucky and all my books have been published in Cuba.”
Though humble and mild-mannered, Padura does note that he won Cuba’s National Prize for Literature in 2012 (overseen by the country’s Ministry of Culture) and was shortlisted for the award a few times before. But despite the acclaim and popularity of his work in Cuba and Latin America, Padura enters each new project with the same trepidation: that this will be the book that doesn’t get approved for publication.
At the time of our conversation, Padura’s latest novel, La transparencia del tiempo [the ninth Mario Conde novel, not yet available in English], was awaiting approval from Cuba’s internal systems. While Mario Conde does appear in this latest book, he’s not the sole protagonist—a plot device Padura has used in the past, most notably in Herejes [Published as Heretics in English]. The novel finds Conde about to turn 60, feeling more skeptical than usual about Cuba and the world around him. An old friend enlists him to find a stolen statue, which Conde soon discovers is more valuable than he first thought. The quest pulls Conde into the world of art galleries and foreign collectors. As the bodies begin to pile up, the story jumps around in time, to various periods, following the statue’s various owners.
“I always try to use history to try and clarify the present—it serves like a mirror, so we can understand what we were and what we are.”
As Padura’s career expanded into the new century, so did his scope—moving past the more grounded, gritty tales of Mario Conde to epic, historical novels like El hombre que amaba a los perros [The Man Who Loved Dogs], which dealt with the murder of Leon Trotsky and his assassin, Ramon Merader. It’s arguably Padura’s greatest achievement, and the product of years of research and revision. The book’s political slant is also worth noting, as it hinges on Stalin’s hunt for Trotsky, arguably the brains behind the initial Russian revolution and the father of his own brand of socialism, in stark contrast to Stalinism. The book’s publication was telling to me, and, honestly, surprising—based on the preconceptions I held before our chat. It was the kind of novel that Padura could not have written out of the gate.
“That was a novel that I wrote when I could write it, really,” Padura said. “It would have been impossible earlier, because the information available in terms of the elements I touch on in the book were not as well known. In Cuba, we didn’t know anything about Trotsky. But as I researched, I learned that Trotsky’s killer, Ramon Mercader, lived in Cuba for four years—the last four years of his life. So, I used the brutal history and story of Trotsky’s murder as a representation of the perversion—of the big idea of an egalitarian, 20th century utopia.
“I believe that there comes a point where the idea, where the utopia, loses the power of realization. And the whole process in the novel is seen through the eyes of a Cuban of my generation—someone who has lived in a socialist country and who has experienced living in a system in which a utopian idea was put into practice. I always try to use history to try and clarify the present—it serves like a mirror, so we can understand what we were and what we are. We always claim to learn from history, but in fact we forget it. I’m less interested in history in terms of dates or appointments or what happened when. I am interested in its capacity to illuminate the present.”
Padura, like many authors, likens writing a novel to a birthing process—one that involves a period of growth and development spearheaded by inspiration, writing, and revision.
“Every novel has a way of coming to life,” Padura said. “The processes are sometimes similar, but I believe each book is different. You watch a movie, read a book, learn a story—and then a seed is planted in that mysterious place where all novels are born, which is never the same. So, I start with an idea, then I start to think about how I might be able to construct the story—and that leads me to research. In the case of the Trotsky novel, it took years of research. Then I start to write, which is then followed by extensive rewriting, which can involve 10, 15, even 20 drafts. Sometimes I share these drafts with a group of readers so I can get some feedback, so they can let me know what sections work and which ones don’t. This helps me very much, because I believe an intelligent reader is extremely valuable.”
Though, as an interviewer, I find process and writing habits to be of great interest—it’s even more compelling here, when talking to Padura, as I had no idea what it must be like to live as a writer in Castro’s Cuba. Did he write longhand? How did he find time? His answer surprised me.
“I write on the computer,” Padura said. “The first thing I bought when I had some money in 1990 was to buy a computer, and it helps me very much with the work, especially with how I write—which involves extensive rewriting.”
It’s at this point, well into our conversation, where I ask the question that’s buzzed around my brain from the beginning: Cuba. What is it like to be a creative there? How has the scene changed? It’s not a light topic, and not one that can be summarized quickly, Padura notes.
“This is a complex issue,” Padura said. “In the 1960s, these were the years of great, big revolutionary enthusiasm, so you saw a lot of writers greeting this kind of event. And as time passed, as we see a much more orthodox vision, pulled from the official government perspective, as opposed to stemming purely from the art.”
The period Padura references is thought of by many as “the gray quinquennium” or “black decade”—a period during the 1970s that saw a notable crackdown in areas of the arts. The period was known for pointless delays and blockades on literature and other art forms.
“We felt some recovery from that in the 1980s,” Padura said. “Especially for writers of my generation, we got back some of our reflective spaces, to create. But that ends in 1990, with the paper crisis, but that free space was still open. For the first time, people started to look for ways to get published, and that free space survives up through today. Today, the problem is that the younger generation—authors under forty years of age—are not very visible in Cuba due to issues with how books are published, for creative problems and because Cuba has issues in terms of its publishing market.”
The publishing landscape aside, Padura is eager to discuss his hometown—Havana—as the perfect setting for noir novels. Like the best noir fiction, Padura’s setting of choice is almost as important as the protagonist, creating a textured backdrop for Mario Conde to explore alongside the reader.
“Though we belong to countries, I believe as crime writers, we are especially connected to cities,” Padura said. “And I am a novelist of Havana.”
“Though we belong to countries, I believe as crime writers, we are especially connected to cities,” Padura said. “And I am a novelist of Havana. That’s why most of my stories are set there and even when I diverge from it, I always end up returning to Havana. It’s the natural space for my novels, it is essential to the story of Mario Conde because I know the city in a very intimate, deep way. It’s not just the buildings and street names that matter—it’s about the people who inhabit it and even the form in which they speak. I have a very deep appreciation for Havana in my novels.
“Havana—in contrast to other Latin American cities—is not particularly violent, but it is a city where diverse crimes happen,” Padura continues. “I try to exploit the urban space that I know well to present not only the dark side of society, but of the human condition as well. The crime always reflects a side that is in a more dismal situation than we are in, and for me, I wouldn’t be capable of writing a crime novel not connected to Havana. Sometimes people ask me, ‘Will Mario Conde ever travel to Miami or Santo Domingo and work there?’ Which, of course, intrigues me, but honestly, the world Mario Conde is capable of exploring is the world of Havana. I can’t see him anywhere else.”
I mention to Padura again that I write the Pete Fernandez novels, set in Miami, but live in New York—and explain my frequent trips back home to retain a connection to the setting of my series. I joke that Conde might want to make a trip to Miami to share a cafecito with Pete, or vice versa. We both laugh at the idea and promise to explore it—which we do, for naught, but the journey ends up cementing our friendship after this conversation concludes. Still, the joke steers us toward our respective detectives, and the connective tissue between author and character—and the creation of Mario Conde.
“I felt it was important to make Conde a police officer because there was no role where you could investigate a murder in 1989 in Cuba,” Padura said. “It had to be a police officer. But from the beginning I gave him characteristics that, in essence, made him an anti-hero. He’s too soft, too sensitive, an educated type who wants to be a writer—and you see this through his friendships and his sense of loyalty. All of that went into creating this character who also happens to be of my generation. He has an education and personal history similar to mine, because he lives in a part of the city much like mine, and has lived through experiences similar to mine. We’ve seen him evolve, too, and even leave the police force—which allows me a greater freedom in telling his stories of investigation.”
But what is crime like in Cuba, one has to wonder? I ask Padura to give me a sense of what it’s like to write these dark tales set in the island nation.
“Well, I believe corruption is universal,” Padura said. “Murder is universal. But my stories focus on Havana, and acts of corruption in Cuba—in a country that has poverty like Cuba. It’s not akin to, say, a Mexican politician stealing for himself. It’s not the same here. In my novel, Vientos de cuaresma, the whole investigation hinges on the remains of a marijuana cigarette. That might seem laughable to you, but in the Cuba I knew and in the Cuba I grew up, the existence of this marijuana cigarette was not common and therefore—everything that had to do with the drug, from the violence to obtaining it—is very different in my novels than that of other Latin American crime writers. All of this stems from having experience living in Cuba and knowing how these types of people work in Cuba within the social, economic and political landscape of the country.”
As we approach the end of our chat, I get to the crux of my queries—and the space between us, literally and figuratively. I explain to Padura that, since birth, my perception of Cuba was driven by the perspective of the previous generation—the people who’d fled. The walls went up and the division existed. The Cuba I knew was an idea. So, from his view—what is the reality?
“There are two Cubas—two antagonistic views exist,” Padura said. “The traditional left that sees Cuba as a possible paradise, and the right that sees it as a hell of sorts. I believe there’s a little bit of both. Cuba has many problems, especially in terms of economics—there is a dysfunction there. There is also a peculiar social and political structure, which is very difficult to change. Right now, there’s been a change of government [Padura is referencing the ascension of Raul Castro to head Cuba’s ruling party], it is still rooted in continuity, while at the same time, the life of the everyday Cuban is complicated, difficult. There are few sparks, if that makes sense. There isn’t a tendency to enrich. In general, it is a society where some things change, but the essential conditions are immobile, and they will not change until the economic conditions change.”