Cuban mysterian Padura (The Man Who Loved Dogs, 2013, etc.) returns with another installment in his Mario Conde detective series, this one following a Rembrandt portrait over centuries and continents.
Conde, as Padura’s fans know, is a former cop–turned-investigator, suspicious of everyone and everything. It turns out that, to supplement his income as all Cubans on the island must, he’s developed a sideline in the book trade—and has done pretty well for himself as a scout for one Yoyi the Pigeon, an entrepreneurial young “engineer who had never touched a screw or entered any job sites.” It’s in that guise that Conde falls in with a painter, Daniel Kaminsky, who is on the track of a missing treasure: long ago, an ancestor had come into the possession of a small Rembrandt portrait that had traveled with the family across a bitterly anti-Semitic Europe for centuries until arriving in Cuba with a shipload of refugees aboard the ill-fated Saint Louis; that painting, writes Padura, had variously been “a secret, a family heirloom, and, in the end, a jewel on which the last Kaminskys to enjoy owning it would place their greatest hopes for salvation.” Why a Jew of modest means should have been carrying a work of art by the Master in the first place turns out to be the crux of a story that Padura spins off to incorporate numerous threads—in fact, four main strands of them in four separate books that run backward, biblically, from Daniel to Genesis, and that hop from place to place: Havana, Miami, Krakow, Amsterdam. There are real heretics behind the title of Padura’s book, but the term embraces all sorts of outsiders, from Yoyi, who represents something like the fall of socialist man, to young Cuban neo-rebels (“hearing two lesbian confessions on the same day…exceeded his capacity for understanding”) and the hidden marrano Jews of the New World.
Padura capably works here in Perez-Reverte territory, where art and ideas meet mayhem. Smart and satisfying though too long by 100 pages.