I know it’s all so terribly cool just now to effervesce over gritty, pulpy and bleak standalone crime novels filled with soul-damaged or psychopathic characters mired in the fallout of bad choices, their often violent escapades delivered with prose largely unencumbered by stylistic flourishes. But too many of those works strive to shock readers rather than actually surprise them. And they struggle overmuch to define their significance by whatever distance they can achieve from this genre’s conventions. They wear out their welcomes pretty fast.
I’d rather pick up a good old-fashioned private-eye novel any day. If not a classic by Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald or Thomas B. Dewey, then maybe one of Loren D. Estleman’s Detroit-backdropped Amos Walker tales (such as 2012’s Burning Midnight) or an installment of Sara Paretsky’s series featuring gutsy Chicago P.I. V.I. Warshawski (last spotted in Breakdown). I would be happy with any of Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole yarns (most recently, Taken) or a Nathan Heller outing from Max Allan Collins (such as Target Lancer), or even a vintage entry from Frank Kane’s slightly cheesy, often sexist Johnny Liddell series.
And definitely sign me up for any future Cormac Loame outings.
You’re unfamiliar with “Mac” Loame? Then you haven’t yet read Richard Helms’ new novel, The Mojito Coast. It’s set in Havana, Cuba, beginning in 1958, and finds the Miami-based peeper following the twisted path of Lila Hacker, an overripe 14-year-old who has slipped the clutches of her father, Cecil “Madman” Hacker, a former heavyweight boxer now grown wealthy from laundering money for Florida mob boss Santo Trafficante Jr. Hacker doesn’t start out as the most savory of clients, and he may be still more reprehensible than Loame realized.
The Mojito Coast (its title a play on Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast) is something of a throwback, but in the best sense. Its list of debts extends at least to Mickey Spillane, Brett Halliday and that renowned Humphrey Bogart picture, Casablanca. When Loame gazes at himself in the mirror, he sees a hard-boiled cynic willing to accept any assignment that will fetch him a buck—honest or not. “I take the money, I do the job, and I walk away and leave my clients to pick up the pieces of their lives,” he remarks at one point. However, like Bogie’s Rick Blaine (“I stick my neck out for nobody”), Loame’s hardened shell conceals a romantic streak longer than Florida’s Tamiami Trail. And it’s that romanticism, that fragile faith in the notion of happiness and justice both being attainable, that propels him repeatedly to the edge of disaster.
If not for the pile of greenbacks Madman is willing to spend to retrieve his daughter—who he says has been seduced away by handsome, 26-year-old bodyguard Danny McCarl—Loame probably wouldn’t have set foot again in Cuba. On his last visit there, in 1952, he chased down a bookie who’d skipped bail in the Sunshine State and absconded to the Caribbean. Amid an exchange of hot lead, Loame finally managed to load his quarry onto a plane bound for Key West. He was less successful in convincing a dazzling young cubana named Marisol to join them on that same flight. She stayed behind to wed a politically well-connected sugar baron, Hector Gonzalez.
Six years later, Havana is a different place, more decadent and corrupt than ever. U.S. mobsters, including Trafficante and Meyer Lansky, enjoy tremendous sway in Cuba’s capital, thanks to the aid they provided military strongman Fulgencio Batista when he took control of the island’s government. But their influence is currently at risk from revolutionary forces led by Fidel Castro. While all may seem serene in Havana, it’s being surrounded by communist rebels.
Loame hopes to locate and liberate the wayward Lila before Batista’s fall. Nothing in this tale, though, is so easily accomplished. First, a local man from whom the shamus had sought help is murdered. Then Loame is snatched by thugs, whose criminal employers warn this “two-bit private cop” that causing trouble for their profitable Cuban casinos and hotels could threaten his well-being. And after Loame is contacted by Danny McCarl, who claims he took Lila from her father for her own protection, McCarl meets a violent end. As if all those twists weren’t enough to convince Loame that he should find a more boring occupation, he soon discovers that Marisol isn’t as satisfied with her marriage as he’d thought. Can our gumshoe hero grab Lila Hacker and keep her safe, and also steal away with Marisol, without being shot by a jealous Hector Gonzalez?
“Moral dilemmas give me headaches,” Loame muses late in this yarn. “I like my options clearly defined. At the moment, the choices I’d been dealt felt more like one of those Dali paintings with melting clock faces, or trying to play jacks with a quicksilver ball.”
Author Helms is well-practiced at concocting private-eye fiction. A former forensic psychologist who now teaches psychology at a college in Charlotte, N.C., he’s previously penned two series, one starring San Francisco sleuth Eamon Gold (Cordite Wine, 2005), the other headlined by musician and unlicensed P.I. Pat Gallegher (Wet Debt, 2003). In addition, he has won several Derringer Awards for his short fiction.
Helms knows how to keep a story moving, whether it’s with gunplay or sex or the introduction of cameo players such as Ernest Hemingway, who—between drinking bouts—helps Loame out of more than one tight spot in The Mojito Coast. Although this novel doesn’t capture the Cuban capital quite so colorfully as did, say, Stephen Hunter’s Havana or José Latour’s Havana World Series, it deftly portrays the city at the precipice of revolutionary change, as residents decide whether to flee or fight. And there’s a jai alai match in one of the opening chapters that helped me understand that sport better than I ever did while watching it live one summer in a Tijuana court. “The best way to describe it,” Helms writes, “is to say it’s like playing horse in mixed doubles squash on Benzedrine.”
I’m only sorry to hear that Cormac Loame’s prospects are uncertain. Yes, Helms says he has a Mojito Coast sequel in mind: “Mac won’t be going back to Cuba, but I have been working on a synopsis that would involve Jack Ruby and the Fair Play for Cuba Committee [an American organization that provided support for Castro’s post-revolutionary government].” After that, though? Well, the author hopes to keep his protagonist alive in novellas and short stories, maybe alternating them with fresh Eamon Gold adventures. Maybe not.
Keep your fingers crossed. It’s too damn hot in Miami for Loame not to get out once in a while.