Heretics by Leonardo Padura

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Heretics by Leonardo Padura

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Category: Crime
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: A sweeping novel taking in moments from the 17th century to pre-WWII all the way up to present day. Add a wry Cuban detective and we have something special.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 556 Date: April 2017
Publisher: Bitter Lemon Press
ISBN: 978-1908524782

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Daniel Kaminsky is a child émigré to Cuba in 1939, looking forward to being joined from Germany by his parents. They're on board the St Louis in Havana docks but in a country and a time rife with politics and corruption, the ship is turned back without permitting any of their passengers to disembark. Now, nearly 80 years later, Daniel's son wants to know how an auction house obtained a family heirloom: a Rembrandt painting that the Kaminskys had with them on the ill-fated ship. He approaches retired Cuban policeman Mario Conde for answers to something that may seem straightforward but they soon realise it will prove to be anything but.

Leonardo Padura is classed by many as Cuba's premier author. Having read Heretics I don't only believe that, I'm kicking myself for not having heard of him (or his laconic creation policeman-turned-book-dealer Conde) before.

Conde is the same age as his creator and shared a youth of hope that arose from having been born 4 years before the Cuban coup that ousted the dictator Batista. However, the bright future it may have heralded depended on support from the USSR. Hence when the Russians withdrew as the USSR crumbled in 1991, the dream vanished too. Conde, therefore, wears a wistful life-worn quality aligned with the daily poverty and struggle on view in Havana. However this is Cuba so there's always colour, dancing and rum plus an aura of sporadic optimism.

This is the man and the country that have been the backbone of Padura's Conde series in previous books. This time Leonardo is trying something a little bit different. He calls this novel his 'experiment' as he attempts to dovetail historical fiction with Conde's normal police procedural mode. Actually he does more than attempts – he succeeds.

The first sign of this is the way in which the pages of the house brick proportioned book fly by, providing the author the space he needs to execute his story well. Padura's canvas includes vignettes from the 17th century as we witness the cultural storm and anti-Semitism surrounding the Europe of Rembrandt. The reaction to his portrait head of Jesus that will become the Kaminskys' heirloom is very much tied up with this. If it wasn't so tragic it would seem funny: 17th century society will find it heretical for a Jew to pose for a portrait of Jesus, despite Christ's own ethnicity and cultural roots.

The painting becomes the link as we learn of the pre and post-war lives of the Kaminskys including the events that brought the picture to the sale room. It's a well-paced narrative ensuring that, if a lull is approaching, something crops up to rejuvenate our interest.

Throughout the novel our imaginations' camera keeps returning to Conde who becomes our familiar and often comforting companion during the discoveries' turmoil. His private life intertwines with his professional existence. Whether he's drinking with friends who revel in such evocative names as Chandito the Red, talking to his adopted stray dog (Garbage II, son of… yes… Garbage) or wondering whether to take his love-life forward, he has a dry sense of humour making us want to guffaw and then hug him happier.

Indeed this is a great, intelligent modern crime with a slice of hist-fict, capturing a hot and steamy Cuba and a thoroughly enjoyable, subtly subversive detective in accordance with the author's belief that runs through the story. Padura maintains that the heretics of history are the revolutionaries who move society on so this is a novel full of them. Senor Padura – and indeed Senor Conde – I like your style!

(Thank you, Bitter Lemon Press, for providing us with a copy for review.)

Further Reading: If you'd like more of Padura's epic style, try The Man Who Loved Dogs based on the story of the man who links Cuba with Trotsky's murder. If you'd like more crime with a Cuban setting, then it's Midnight in Havana by Peggy Blair. If you'd just like to learn more of Cuba as a destination, we recommend The Island That Dared: Journeys in Cuba by Dervla Murphy.

Buy Heretics by Leonardo Padura at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Heretics by Leonardo Padura at

Buy Heretics by Leonardo Padura at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Heretics by Leonardo Padura at


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