Havana Sleeping by Martin Davies

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Havana Sleeping by Martin Davies

Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: A novel steaming with suppressed historical conspiracies, wrapped up in a murder mystery and all set in 19th century Cuba. Wonderful stuff!
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 416 Date: September 2011
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0340980453

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Hector, a night watchman is murdered at work. There's nothing unusual about that – it happens all the time. The reason being that this is Havana halfway through the 19th century; a place of intrigue, political posturing (and worse) as pro- and anti-slavery conflicts cause bubbles under the surface of society. It's a place where an apparently lowly British civil servant like George Backhouse can be posted to influential positions. It's a place where the Americans don't trust the British, the British don't trust the Americans and everyone fears what the Spanish may do. Meanwhile a courtesan named Leonarda just wants to find out why the man she loved died.

Martin Davies the chap who writes all his novels while on public transport is back with another scorcher. (Yes, I know I've mentioned the public transport thing before but, considering the superlative quality of his work, it still amazes me.) This novel also maintains his reputation for eclecticism. After stories based in post-WWI England, the early days of Australia (early days where the white European is concerned, that is) and China, he's sending us off to the Cuban capital in the mid-19th century and a powder keg that could have turned into a war over slavery a decade before the American Civil War started.

I came to this a complete ignoramus from the history viewpoint. This is a place in time and location we never covered in school and yet it could almost be seen as the Victorian equivalent of the Bay of Pigs Crisis.

The developing drama is brought to us through the eyes of the innocent (and historically factual) George Backhouse, sent to Cuba because he was considered malleable by the wheels within wheels. His promotion to judge in the Havana Mixed Commission for Suppressing Slavery was, to all intents and purposes, to police and prevent the slave trade in Cuba in all its forms. Havana's harbour was used overtly by slavers and there was also a subtle trade in free-men being indentured to ensure they were free in name only.

George soon discovers that not all the diplomacy occurs on the surface and there's a high-intensity traffic in espionage that would put the busiest of our modern day motorways to shame.

George is actually lovely and the epitome of the Englishman abroad, especially as he's schooled in the strait-jacketed ways of British society, shunning any rule or regulation that's just not cricket. To his shock the Havana he finds is definitely not British, is run on non-cricketing unfairness and as alien to him as the surface of an oxygenated Mars would be to us.

His problems aren't just at work either. His wife and burgeoning family suffer at the mercy of more than just homesickness.

George's story is interspersed with professional mistress Leonarda's search for a killer and a reason. Needless to say the pair's paths cross and Leonarda becomes George's guide as they step into the web of subterfuge. We can spot most of the spies but the story is more about George and Leonarda's discoveries, including the 'why' and 'how' both of which are fascinating. In fact I'm not going to say much about the shady people lest I give anything away. From the sleazy chief of police upwards, at some stage everyone becomes a suspect. Suffice it to say as Martin builds his usual high standard of atmosphere, we travel from fascination to fear. These are people we care about and yet he's placing them in the midst of this motley selection.

Once you've finished the novel, do read Martin's excellent historical notes at the back. His enthusiasm bubbles through the mini bios and descriptions, capitalising on the way he's captured our imagination via his fictionalisation.

Talking of which, I congratulate Martin for sticking with the historical ending rather than being tempted to amend with literary licence. It's the right decision and ensures that it remains with us long after the first time we read it. 'Remains with us'; a bit of a cliché? Perhaps it is, but clichés are sometimes true and Havana Sleeping is totally unforgettable.

(Thank you very much Hodder & Stoughton for providing us with a copy for review.)

Further Reading: To begin with, we recommend anything that Martin has written so just dive into the list. If you're already a fan or would like to stick with the innocent official abroad theme, we heartily recommend The Good Italian by Stephen Burke.

Buy Havana Sleeping by Martin Davies at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Havana Sleeping by Martin Davies at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Havana Sleeping by Martin Davies at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Havana Sleeping by Martin Davies at Amazon.com.


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