On my office wall hangs a vintage travel poster depicting a passenger aboard a Pan Am flight enjoying the view of Havana, Cuba, through a window. That poster captures so well my own feelings about an island country that is so close – only 90 miles from Key West, Florida – and yet, due to our country’s restrictions on travel there, so far away. It feels as though I have experienced this forbidden land only through the windows that others who have been there have shared.
In her tenth novel, “Havana Lost,” Libby Fischer Hellmann opens up her own window to a country that seems frozen in time. This novel may seem like somewhat of a departure for Hellmann, who built her resume as a novelist in the mystery/thriller genre, including two series, “The Ellie Foreman Mysteries” and “The Georgia Davis PI Thrillers.” Recent readers of her work, however, have seen that she is an author who is not so easy to label and one who is willing to take risks. “Havana” is actually the third novel in her “revolutionary” thriller series, following “Set the Night on Fire” and “A Bitter Veil,” where she explores how strife and revolution affect the human spirit.
Cut in the vein of Mario Puzo’s epic novel, “The Godfather,” “Havana” is an ambitious effort, spanning three generations of a Cuban crime family and its struggle to control the underworld of Havana against the backdrop of the Cuban revolution. The window that Hellman opens gives glimpse into an ancient world of honor and vendetta, Cuban family tradition, and friendship and loyalty, where betrayal is punished with merciless vengeance. Even after the family flees to Chicago, we see how its Cuban past continues to haunt it and touches all connected to it.
Hellmann’s story races with such urgency, sometimes you wish that she slowed the pace a little – especially when one of her richly drawn characters is lost too fast. This minor critique in no way diminishes the power of the author’s storytelling, which is boosted by her evocative description of the Cuban landscape and its history.
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Until the doors of Cuba are freely open to us here in the states, we have to settle for the windows into its world that others are able to share with us. The window that Hellmann opens is one that I didn’t want to close and one that I will not soon forget. Take this adventure with her. It is one worth getting lost in. If and when our country eases travel restrictions to this island country in the Caribbean, Hellmann’s story is one that I will pack in my luggage so that I can view it against my own window.