Martin Cruz Smith, author of the 1981 thriller "Gorky Park," decided to take his fictional hero, Russian detective Arkady Renko, on a trip to Havana, but before he set pen to paper Smith packed his bags and went to Cuba himself.
The result is another adventure story, "Havana Bay" (Random House), with Renko encountering post-Soviet Cuba as he sifts through clues to the murder of an old friend, a KGB colonel.
"Each trip was different," Smith, who visited Havana five times and clearly was smitten with it, told Reuters. "It is so beautiful and so sad. It looks like an abandoned woman in many ways. There are times it is still as a tomb and then it will start coming to life on you."
Indeed, a mixture of detritus and beauty recurs throughout "Havana Bay." Moscow chief investigator Renko sees jasmine looking like snow over walls, while dumpsters overflow with foul-smelling fruit skins, and worn-out houses offer the memory of color rather than color itself.
"It is difficult to write something about Havana that doesn't sound like a travelogue. You can be become so florid when you are describing a place like Havana," Smith said.
Visiting Cuba was not Smith's first adventure while setting the stage for his character Renko. In the early 1980s he spent two weeks touring Moscow to sketch out the backdrop for the policeman's first big case, which brought him to the attention of Western detective story readers and moviegoers.
Later Smith talked his way aboard a Russian fish factory ship in the Bering Sea--the setting for his 1989 thriller "Polar Star."
In "Havana Bay," Renko fumbles his way through to the resolution of the murder like some disheveled Raymond Chandler character, bickering with heads of local law enforcement and getting pummeled by the underworld. He also faces the hostility of his former socialist brethren.
"The whole world knows of the Russian betrayal of the Cuban people," a Cuban police captain scolds Renko. And a police interpreter tells him: "There was a time when it was forbidden to speak English. Now Russian is taboo."
"They feel they have been suckered into this socialist camp and then abandoned there by the Soviets, who suddenly call themselves Russians and try and do their best to sneak into the capitalist camp," Smith said of the Cubans.
While the two governments may have cooled to one another, ghosts of their pasts still linger in Smith's adventure. Russian-made Ladas race through Havana streets, and readers of "Havana Bay" encounter veterans of Cuba's military support for Marxist forces in Angola, among them a crippled demolitions specialist with his own auto repair shop.
Smith was reluctant to speak about the real Angola veterans he met. "I have to be careful so I don't get anyone into trouble" with the Castro government, he said. But he had high regard for officers who served there. "They have had training in managing men and material with very little resources."
This ability to overcome a shortfall of resources becomes apparent in the autopsy facility of the Instituto de Medicina Legal, where a forensics specialist shows Renko his makeshift laboratory, a computer equipped with an orthopedic software program and an 8mm camera used to identify victims.
Renko only begrudgingly acknowledges the abilities of Cuba's forensics specialists, but Smith has high praise for them. "It's amazing what they get by with. I did a lot of [research] work with the forensics people, which is in part why there is so much taking place at the institute" in the book.
Smith said the "Cubans regard Russian forensics with a fair amount of condescension. They think that Russian police methods and forensics are primitive." He pointed out that Cuba's forensic teams were trained by East German specialists.
This mutual mistrust crops up in the tension between Renko and a Cuban policewoman who helps him track his friend's killer. The Russian also encounters a cast of underworld characters reminiscent of those in Graham Greene's screenplay for "The Third Man," many of whom are struggling to survive.
Smith's most recent visit to Havana was a year ago, and he said there has been a crackdown since, but he encountered some of the jiniteras and jiniteros--female and male hustlers offering sex and cigars--that show up in "Havana Bay."
"Every doorway you passed, somebody was selling coffee or juice or homemade ice cream. Everybody rushed for that chance to make a little money on the side," recalled Smith.
Renko also encounters a Santeria religious ceremony in "Havana Bay," but it is more of a party atmosphere with drums to summon different spirits for the Moscow detective who is more at home with the hushed assembly of a Russian Orthodox church.
"I had no intention of going to one but you can't avoid it," said Smith, who like Renko witnessed the "possession" of a ceremony's participants. "I went to a ceremony where everything fell apart. A beautiful young woman ran into walls . . . ran into trees . . . ran through fire."
The cast of characters Renko encounters in Havana also includes a U.S. banker on the run from law enforcement and a U.S.-born terrorist who has set aside his Marxist beliefs for capitalism. Then there are the American tourists who sail into Havana's marina aboard their extravagant pleasure craft.
One of them tells Renko he hopes the U.S. embargo against Cuba will remain intact so he can afford his jiniteras. "Take away the embargo and it'll be 'nother Florida in a year. Hell, I'm a man on a pension," he frets.
This is a type of tourist Smith saw on his visits to Havana. "These guys tend to be older, potbellied guys. They imagine themselves to be soul mates of Fidel and Hemingway," Smith said.
These could be the 1990s version of the "ugly American," he said. "Except the original ugly Americans were Americans that actually thought they were doing good."
CAPTION: Author Martin Cruz Smith.