HAVANA BAY

By Martin Cruz Smith

Random House. 329 pp. $24.95

Reviewed by Nina King

The best travel writing is often pure fiction. Consider those ancient fabulists who reported on their adventures in the lands of phoenix and unicorn, roc and manticore. Consider as well those modern novelists who find that submission to the conventions of plot and character development somehow frees their imaginations to create -- or re-create -- whole worlds.

Faulkner of Yoknapatawpha County, Joyce of Dublin, are among the grand novelists of place who spring to mind. But other topographers of the imagination have worked in the humbler genres of pulp fiction -- mysteries, spy novels, legal or medical thrillers. It may be that a couple of dog-eared James M. Cain paperbacks -- The Postman Always Rings Twice, say, and Mildred Pierce -- can tell us more about life as it was in the back roads of Depression-era California than can academic histories or those new high-gloss guidebooks that dissolve all trace of texture, all shadows.

But texture and shadow are part of what the novel is about, especially the mystery novel, where a smudged fingerprint, an overheard scrap of conversation or a scribbled caption on a photo of the Havana Yacht Club can make all the difference.

Local-color mysteries set in California or Florida or Manhattan are, of course, old news. This year the chic place to kill or be killed, fictionally speaking, is Cuba.

Not long ago I would have said that there were only two Cuba-set mysteries in English worth a trip to the library: William F. Buckley's See You Later, Alligator, for its ambiguity-ridden portrait of Che Guevara, and Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana for its near perfection. But in the aftermath of the Cold War, younger writers are finding rich material in the history of Cuba as well as in its current dilemmas.

In the last few years, Carolina Garcia-Aguilar has produced three installments of a series starring Cuban-American private eye Lupe Solano, and veteran Elmore Leonard has rewritten the Spanish-American War in his somewhat disappointing Cuba Libre. Last year, Lia Matera's San Francisco-based sleuth, Willa Jansson, tracked her lefty mother south in Havana Twist. Coming in August: Cuba, a military thriller by Stephen Coonts, in which the United States is threatened by some old ICBMs installed in Cuba by the Soviets, as well as by some new biological weapons. And sometime next year, William Heffernan will send his series character Paul Devlin to Havana in Red Angel.

The standout thus far is the fourth installment of Martin Cruz Smith's series about Arkady Renko, the tough/tender Moscow police detective he introduced in Gorky Park in 1981. At the start of Havana Bay, Renko has been dispatched to Cuba to help an old KGB friend. But by the time Arkady arrives, his friend has been reduced to a noxious pile of rapidly decomposing body parts spilling out of one of the inner tubes used as boats by the poorest Cuban fishermen.

As the sun rises over Havana Bay, the police captain "contributed orders to lift the body. As the diver steadied the head, the pressure of his hands liquefied its face and made it slide like a grape skin off the skull, which itself separated cleanly from the neck; it was like trying to lift a man who was perversely disrobing part by part . . . A pelican sailed overhead, red as a flamingo."

Arkady Renko is not in great shape himself. Tormented by the accidental death of his wife, Irina, he has taken to wearing at all times the cashmere overcoat she gave him in a Russian winter. In the heat of Havana, he is like an upscale version of those U.S. derelicts who wear their knitted watchcaps even when the temperature is in the 90s.

Arkady's sorrow is propelling him toward suicide, and it looks like he will have plenty of help in Havana, starting with a police sergeant, who beats him brutally -- for no apparent reason except a generalized Cuban dislike for Russians.

The plot of Havana Bay is immensely complicated and, in truth, not very memorable. It involves a conspiracy to assassinate a high government official, a friendship forged amid Angolan landmines and schemes for exploiting what remains of Cuba's natural and architectural glories. Much more memorable are some of the characters -- especially the odd collection of Russians condemned by chance or history to live out their days in this lost paradise. Arkady, who speaks no Spanish, is further cut off from his surroundings by the wall of his grief. But after he accidentally kills an assailant, he becomes increasingly caught up in the investigation of several deaths. In a young cop named Ofelia he finds a competent ally, and something more.

Their investigation takes them all over Havana. Along the way Smith indulges in many of the cliches of current Cuba coverage: the vintage American cars still running after 40 years of sea spray; the photo of the young Castro with the graying Hemingway; the background throb of the rumba; baseball; Santeria; the beautiful young prostitutes known as jineteras (jockeys); the sex tourists from Europe who can buy a night's sexual favors for a few bucks and a lifetime commitment for the price of a shopping spree; the decay and the preservation that are the two faces of the neglect of colonial Old Havana.

What makes Smith's version different from and better than the journalistic boilerplate is that he anchors the cliches in the contexts of family and community, finding in the process humanity and humor. In one wonderful scene, several prostitutes sit around talking; with them is Ofelia in plain clothes.

"The girl had the Julia Roberts look from the film Pretty Woman, very popular in Cuba, tons of hair, myopic eyes, pouty lips, and she was watching a bracelet being sold on a portable television connected to a small satellite dish bolted to the dock. Ofelia recognized the Home Shopping Network, also very popular in Cuba among those with access to dishes. The woman on the television laid the bracelet across her wrist to let the light play on the stones. The sound was off, but the price flashed in the corner of the screen.

" `That's beautiful,' Ofelia said.

" `Isn't it? Good price, too.'

" `Diamond?'

" `Same as. Last week, they had a chain for the ankle with the same stones. You think that's a good price, but wait.' The woman on the television spread the bracelet on a bed of velvet and added a pair of earrings. `See, I knew. You order too soon and you don't get the earrings. You have to know to wait and then pick up your phone and give them your credit-card number and the bracelet's yours in two days.' Julia Roberts glanced over. `You're new here.'

" `I'm looking for Teresa.'

"The television woman brushed back a mantle of hair to model the earrings, left, right, frontal. Another girl in a top and thong came out of the cabin. Her hair was almost as short as Ofelia's but peroxided blond. `You know Teresa?'

" `Yes. Luna told me she would be here.'

" `You know Facundo?' The girl in the hammock sat up.

" `I met him.'

" `Teresa's real upset,' the blonde knelt by the rail and whispered. `She was next door when Hedy got her throat slit. They were close.'

" `She got run in, too,' Julia Roberts said. `Some police bitch gave her a tough time. For helping feed her family, you know.'

" `I know,' said Ofelia."

Nina King is editor of Book World.