ST. PETERSBURG TIMES
Where better than a haunted city to set up shop as a mystery writer?
That was author John Lantigua’s thinking when he created the character of Miami private eye Willie Cuesta.
Delving into the secret lives of those whom he is hired to investigate makes Cuesta the ideal vehicle to dig up the past.
“Miami is full of people who have ghosts,” said Lantigua, who as a former Latin America correspondent has firsthand experience of some of the events that have traumatized its residents.
“This is a place where the actual people surrounding you have lived unusually dramatic lives. Sometimes they are very harrowing stories.”
In Lantigua’s new novel, The Ultimate Havana, published by Signet Books, Cuesta tracks the son of a famous Cuban cigarmaker and runs into a ring of ruthless counterfeiters. The story also centers on Little Havana, with a foray to the Dominican Republic, home of the best cigars outside Cuba.
The characters and events depicted in Lantigua’s stories may be pure invention, but there’s no mistaking the very real setting of Miami’s multilayered politics and history.
“That’s what makes John’s novels particularly interesting to read,” said Les Standiford, director of the creative writing project at Florida International University and author of his own series of South Florida thrillers.
“Some people, you just can’t believe their characters, but I believe he (Lantigua) knows where he speaks. His writing exudes that authority.”
Lantigua’s intimate knowledge of Miami, and especially its Hispanic residents, tempts comparisons of his work to Raymond Chandler’s depiction of Los Angeles.
But Lantigua sees himself as more political, a product of Central America’s revolutionary wars of the 1980s, which he covered as a reporter.
“My background is political reporting, and Willie Cuesta’s background is political law enforcement.”
The writer he most admires is Ross McDonald, who wrote intricate mystery novels that reflected the changing times in post-World War II California.
“I find that the mystery novel deals with social issues in this country more often than the literary novels and very often in a more convincing manner,” said Lantigua, 53, who lives in Miami Beach in a house hidden behind a wall of palms and a big old mango tree. “Detectives deal with people who have a problem.”
Lantigua is especially fascinated with families and politics and the secrets both hold. In Miami’s case, politics is essential to understanding the city’s varied identity.
“What you have is people who leave the country where they are born. They don’t just leave. They run from them because of some sort of crisis,” he said. “But they don’t leave their cultures behind. Very often those events and the human relations carry with them. We see that among the Cubans particularly.”
The repercussions of revolutions and civil wars on emigre families are tremendous. “There are brothers who fight on different sides, people who spend decades trying to find out what happened to their relatives who disappeared without a trace.”
So history is part of the mystery Cuesta must solve.
In Lantigua’s last novel, Player’s Vendetta, a woman asks Cuesta to find her missing boyfriend. He’s on a mission to find out who murdered his parents. They were involved in Havana’s underground resistance to Fidel Castro’s 1959 takeover. But they were also mixed up with casinos.
The plot is played out on the streets of Little Havana, providing glimpses into the murky world of Cuban exile politics and the city’s steamy nightlife.
His next novel is also set in Miami but involves a Chilean human rights lawyer and the dark secrets of the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.
Much of his material is drawn from his real-life experiences as a journalist. One earlier book is about a series of murders in San Francisco involving death squads from El Salvador, and another is set in Costa Rica and deals with left-wing guerrillas and the CIA.
He still does some freelance writing, including a major analysis of the Florida election in last week’s edition of The Nation, the weekly political magazine edited in New York.
In 1999, he shared a Pulitzer Prize as one of a team of Miami Herald writers who uncovered a voter fraud scandal in an election for Miami mayor.
Like any good journalist, Lantigua wants to set the record straight about Latin America.
“People in the U.S. very often have a tremendous misconception about revolution in Latin America,” he said. “Guerrilla wars were fought all over the region. Mostly they were Marxists. That’s as much as many people in this country want to know.”
But Lantigua argues that many of those guerrilla movements emerged from popular struggles for democratic freedoms that Americans take for granted.
“We think it’s all about capitalism versus communism,” he said. “But you have to ask why those people picked up guns. It wasn’t all about Marx. That’s why I want to write about the root causes of all this bloody history.”
Moving from newspapers to writing novels was a logical step in many ways. Lantigua describes fiction as history in a user-friendly format.
“Novelizing is personal history and therefore more accessible to most people,” he said. “You take certain events, and you investigate how they play out inside a very small number of human beings, what it caused them to feel and think about and the decisions they took. That way you get a much more intimate view of history.”
But his fascination with uncovering dirt goes far beyond any journalistic curiousity.
Instead, he attributes it – and his fascination with Miami’s conflict-scarred society – to his own upbringing.
His father was Cuban and his mother Puerto Rican. Both arrived in New York at an early age, escaping dire circumstances back home.
At age 13 his father was already an assistant manager in a dry goods store in Matanzas, Cuba. His mother was raised in a convent in the south of Puerto Rico.
“I consider myself a child of history,” Lantigua said. “Because of the social conditions that existed on those two different islands, they came here. I’m an American because of historical imperatives, so it’s my way of understanding the world.”
He grew up in New Jersey, where no one spoke Spanish. Even his parents soon gave up trying to teach him. “My parents never spoke a word of Spanish to me after I was 4,” he said. “At the time, there was not the attitude towards foreign culture that there is today. The salad bowl concept didn’t exist. That meant everyone spoke English.”
After working in local journalism in the United States, he felt the call of his roots. He hitchhiked to Mexico to visit an uncle and ended up staying almost five years. He had several jobs, including running a hiking company called Motherlode Tours in the Sierra Madre mountains of the state of Oaxaca.
He returned to journalism, moving to Central America just as the Reagan administration was drawing a line against the spread of communism in the region.
In Nicaragua, the U.S. set about trying to topple the left-wing Sandinista government. Next door in El Salvador, the U.S. military was defending the government from left-wing guerrilla attack.
There were secrets galore. Lantigua was in his element.
“Nicaragua was a seminal experience for me,” he said. Besides providing much of the Latin American flavor of his work, there were long waits at wartime press conferences given by Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista president. “I read a lot of mystery novels waiting for Daniel Ortega to do his thing,” he said. “One day I decided I knew enough about mystery novels and Central America to write a book.”
When he decided to take up novel writing full time, Lantigua remembered the words of a colleague who had told him of the virtues of living in Miami.
It made perfect sense. Famous as the gateway of commerce with Latin America, Miami is also a cultural crossroads for many of the kinds of colorful characters who had already made their way into Lantigua’s novels.
“I love Miami,” he said. “It’s a good place for me. The ghosts don’t rest.”
Here is an excerpt from John Lantigua’s new novel, The Ultimate Havana:
Willie Cuesta, private investigator, sat slouched in a wicker chair, his bare feet propped on the windowsill in his Little Havana office. He stared at a small, green lizard that clung to the pane of glass, hunting a mosquito in the corner of the casement. That window overlooked the tropical garden that Willie cultivated in his backyard. At the moment, the hibiscus were in bloom.
The gecko stood absolutely still. Every two minutes or so, it darted forward an inch and then froze, so that it might take an hour to traverse that one pane of glass. Willie and the lizard had been roommates for several years and Willie had observed the methodical, painstaking and heartless hunting process many a time. It was as transparent as the window, but very successful. The mosquito, Willie knew, was toast. The gecko always got his man.