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KING BONGO by Thomas Sanchez

KING BONGO

By Thomas Sanchez

Pub Date: May 2nd, 2003
ISBN: 0-679-40696-4
Publisher: Knopf

Straightforward noir against the backdrop of pre-Revolution Cuba.

It’s New Year’s Eve, and both 1957 and Communism loom in the island’s future. King Bongo, a p.i. when the price is right, is on his way to the Tropicana casino to settle some scores and possibly score a sexy, rare flower. But the casino will blow up before morning, a blast that strikes just as the year turns. After Bongo gives his statement to the police and retires to his office, there’s only a moment before he’s frozen in his tracks by the inevitable click of high heels outside his office that triggers the beginning of noir, albeit a somewhat low-rent variety: “Bongo was immobile, like a fly just zapped by the tongue of an albino lizard.” That’s followed in short order by the appearance of the necessary body, sans legs, arms and head, caught up in a fisherman’s nets. This makes for adequate introduction to the story’s trickster-villain Zapata, the perverted policeman Bongo despises, who likes to fantasize sick poetry and who throws the body into his trunk so that he can tool around town after little girls and find more corpses. The plot takes the typical route—someone disappeared in the blast, the trail leads all the way to the top, Cuba would be better if the Americans weren’t around, and it all comes back to rare flowers in the end—but Sanchez’s (Day of the Bees, 2000, etc.) heart seems tied to weird characters. This is a world populated with the likes of Leaping Larry Lizard, Johnny Payday (“a bald little schmo whose muscles bulged and twitched beneath his discount-store suit”), Broadway Betty (who is liable to break into songs from Oklahoma! at any moment), Sweet Maria (the maid with a mission), and Monkey Shines (“who was born on a street named bitterness, but he was an eternal optimist”).

Florid, not quite Chandler.