Reviews and Recommendations by Mel Odom, Professional Writer

HAVANA by Stephen Hunter

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I fell in love with Stephen Hunter’s Earl Swagger novels this year. Luckily I discovered the first one at the beginning and listened to them on audiobook in order. There are three of them so far. Hot Springs, Pale Horse Coming, and Havana.

The Swagger name may sound familiar to people. Mark Wahlberg just starred in the movie Shooter as Earl’s son, Bob Lee Swagger. Stephen Hunter has been intermittently writing novels about father and son over the last few years. Earl’s adventures are set in the 1940s and 1950s. Bob Lee’s are more in present-day, and the latest novel in that series, has just been released.

If you haven’t read any of the Swagger novels, I really recommend reading them in order. Both series tell a story that’s more mosaic than anything else. Both are pieces of the other. Hunter began with Bob Lee’s stories, then told the first of Earl’s. Obviously the author has become enamored of both his creations. Unfortunately, Earl’s adventures maybe at an end after Havana. I’m willing to bet that I’m not the only fan that hopes this isn’t so. I do know that The 47th Samurai has chapters in it from Earl’s point of view, and that the plot revolves around choices both Swaggers face.

Havana ends up being more spy story than either of the two previous books about Earl Swagger. I think Hunter had a hard time fitting Earl into the plot in some ways. The previous two books hit harder and were more driven by Earl’s choices. In this book, Earl seems to be reactive more than proactive.

Everything centers around the unrest in Havana in the 1950s. The United States government has a Central Intelligence Agency operation in place on the island and they’re carefully monitoring the political backlash surging against Carlos Batista, who is friendly toward the Americans. As long as Batista is in control, American companies will flourish there. At one time, Havana was referred to as the Disneyland for adults, referring to the gambling, prostitution, drinking, and drugs available.

The New York Mafia has bested interest in the island government as well. Meyer Lansky was there overseeing mob-related business throughout those turbulent years. Hunter uses the mob-influenced history to his advantage throughout the novel. There’s even a mob hitman working for Lansky who is called Frankie Horse after he gunned down a New York policemen and his mount. The mob bosses didn’t like the idea that Frankie had killed the horse. As punishment, he was sent down to Havana.

The story takes a little while to get started. There’s a lot of backstory to set up, but it’s all important to provide a picture of the political and economic climate of Havana during those years. Hunter obviously did his research well and enjoyed the subject matter.

Earl gets called in by the government to write shotgun for a senator while he’s down in Havana. Harry Etheridge is a southern congressman with a taste for prostitutes. Earl doesn’t really care for the assignment, but he’s tempted when those who hire him point out that he could provide a much different future for his young son and wife. Those two people mean everything to Earl, and that’s one of the reasons that I enjoy him so much as a character.

Earl is plainspoken and humble, and his world is black and white. He doesn’t drink because he knows he can’t handle it. When he fights, he gives everything he’s got because he knows nothing less will do. He’s one of the most decorated soldiers to ever come out of the Pacific theater in World War II. And he knows what killing’s all about.

This story is bigger than the previous two Earl Swagger novels. In the earlier books, the plot remained thin and Earl stayed in the spotlight nearly the whole time through. Havana offered up a richly textured series of events and characters that at times eclipsed Earl. I missed having him on the pages, but there was so much else going on that caught my attention.

Hunter also obviously fell in love with Speshnev, a Russian soldier that was freed from a Siberian prison camp. Spesnev became something of a political embarrassment to Moscow and was locked away in spite of his service during World War II. The old Russian is a wily and cunning man gifted with great, dark humor. I found myself wishing that Stephen Hunter would write a book about him at some point just so I can see everywhere Speshnev has been and what he has done.

So Stephen, if you’re reading this, know that you already have one fan waiting for that book.

The chemistry between Swagger and Speshnev is electric. I spent much of the book fearing the time they would meet over gun barrels. In the beginning, Speshnev saves Earl’s butt twice, but I knew that they were working at cross purposes and that conflict would at some point need to be resolved.

Hunter also seems to have great fun poking at the CIA’s presence in Havana. The intelligence agency seems to be primarily a joke as he shows the emergence of the new “laidback” agents the kind of fit the preppy model. But Hunter also gives them one of Earl’s oldest foes in the form of Frenchy Short, who betrayed Earl’s team in Hot Springs.

After caring for Senator Etheridge, and getting shot up for his trouble, Earl gets pressured by the CIA to become an assassin and kill Fidel Castro. At the same time, the reader knows that Sheshnev has been sent there to educate young Castro and get him ready to take over Cuba as a communist partner.

Although the reader knows that Earl isn’t going to kill Castro, a lot of the story still yet remains to play through. Even without the mystery and suspense of how Earl was going to kill Castro, I stayed glued to my radio as the audio book played. I hated getting out at my stops and often found excuses to run errands that could’ve waited or go buy a Coke so I could get through a particularly exciting sequence. The problem was that most of the sequences in the book are exciting and is difficult to leave Earl in any one place after the action gets going.

Readers of the previous two books will know that this one has been done differently. Some may not like it because Earl is off screen so much, but if they hang around till after everything is set up, they’ll get to see Earl in his element: hunting men and struggling to stay alive under harsh circumstances.

I had a great time with this book. I hate to think that this is the end of it. I would love to see another novel of Earl any time in here. I would especially love to see a war novel recounting Earl’s adventures in the Pacific. After Earl returns home to his family in Blue Eye, Arkansas, it’s not long before he’s murdered while carrying out his job as an Arkansas State Trooper, though not in this book. And that gives me hope that another novel may yet be in the offing.

If this is all there is, I appreciate all the great stories. Hunter gives his readers a character that is at once real and ideal. There aren’t many like him, not in real life and not in fiction.


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