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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Writer's gift for colour uncovers Cuban darkness in debut crime thriller

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Peggy Blair, an accomplished Ottawa lawyer with a fascination with Cuba, must have, down deep, the soul of a riverboat gambler.

She has set this first of a promised series of crime thrillers (mystery is too tame a genre to apply here) in Havana, a city she may never see again, once Cuba's literary police have read The Beggar's Opera.

The literary police, most likely to exist as a highly educated, under-occupied group whose official title disguises their license to censor, will have a difficult call.

Blair's book reveals things better left in the shadows: the sex tourism trade, the persistence of primitive religion, a legal system at the beck and call of the state. Can it be a good thing if the world of readers knows that Cuban police officers cannot afford pencils?

At the same time, The Beggar's Opera pays loving and detailed homage to the unique beauty of the island nation, both the capital and the countryside, respects the complicated integrity of Fidel Castro and creates, at last, a popular Cuban hero.

Ricardo Ramirez, head of the major crimes unit of the Cuban National Revolutionary Police, could easily invade and captivate international crime television, a field long dominated by American and British cops.

There are enough strong characters, dazzling locations and subplots in Blair's book to sustain more than one season of thrillers.

Ramirez is memorable in that, surrounded by limitations and corruption, he believes in and works doggedly toward justice for the dead. What gives him a unique identity among detectives, however, are the ghosts who follow him about, seeking closure for their cases.

The first time he discovered a bloodied corpse waiting politely in his back seat, he "jumped so high that his head hit the roof of his blue Chinese mini-car." Sadly, no matter how cleverly he questions his messengers from the other world, they cannot answer, other than miming what they want to say.

Blair's plot revolves around Mike Ellis, a vacationing Ottawa cop who has been charged with the rape and murder of a Havana street urchin, and Celia Jones, a lawyer sent by the Ottawa police force to get to the bottom of things before Ellis is sent to prison, where he will certainly die, either by firing squad or by rough justice.

It's typical of Blair that neither character is what they seem. They have this in common: both of them have been professionally trained to kill, and both have serious emotional work to do in their separate lives.

To this cast, Blair has added a brilliant plastic surgeon who is also a dwarf; a genteel, transgendered hooker; and a gifted and ambitious police officer who may be an irredeemable monster.

The writer's gift for detail and colour is breathtaking, almost psychedelic, in a passage in which lawyer Celia Jones searches for a place to send urgent, illegal emails back to Canada.

The search takes her through a blind alley leading to a secret sanctuary for Santeria worshippers that doubles as a hidden Internet station.

It's a place beyond the imagination of tourists. "For a fleeting moment it crossed her mind that she had been brought here as a sacrifice."

Jones sends her emails amid hypnotic drumming and blood-curdling screams, aware she can be arrested at any moment. Ordinary computer adventures pall by comparison.

The original Beggar's Opera (composed in 1728) ended with a hanging, but early audiences demanded a happy ending, and they got it.

A happy ending to this one will be that Cuba's literary police will kick back and enjoy a thriller that gives fresh and fair dimension to Havana and Cuban life.

In Peggy Blair's world, anything can happen.

Lesley Hughes is a Winnipeg writer and broadcaster.

The Beggar's Opera

By Peggy Blair

Penguin Group, 344 pages, $24

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 25, 2012 J8

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