Is it the tropical climate? Is it the tradition of Latin American literature? I don't know. All I know about Cuba is derived from "I Love Lucy," so take that into account when I say that Daniel Chavarria's "Tango for a Torturer" comes across as an authentic slice of life in Cuba.
Alberto Rios, a military torturer living the retired good life in Cuba is spotted by Aldo Bianchi, one of his former victims, who plots to frame him for a man's death. Helping him is his mistress, Bini, who's incredibly hot but also emotionally unstable.
It's set in Cuba, but Castro makes as much an appearance as George Bush would in my life. He's background noise. Instead, we're given the native's tour, of people scraping by from day to day, working at their jobs, making a little money on the side, staying out of trouble and taking time to live the good life when they can afford it.
But there's some political moments. Rios (aka Triple O) is a psychotic who made torturing political prisoners his career. Reading that he perfected his craft at Devil's Horn, Fla., and Fort Paramount, Ga., raises the point that the uses of persuasion (as Rios would put it) wasn't institutionalized by Bush, no matter what Seymour Hersh says.
Chavarria loves to take little side trips with the story. There's Dr. Azua, the defense attorney, a Cuban combination of Perry Mason and Nero Wolfe, who infallibly determines the guilt or innocence of his clients by laying hands on them. Then there's the homicide detective, Captain Bastidas, called in to investigate the hit-and-run death of a bicyclist in the rain. I can tell you much about his life, but he plays his role early on and doesn't show up again.
What would a New York editor make of this? Would she read the nine pages devoted to a surprise party for Aldo, or the 11 pages at the end describing another party, this time in prison, and suggest they'd be cut back? There's also plenty of backstory about Rios and his career as a torturer (or as he would tell himself, as an expert in the science of persuasion), about Bini's life, from a little girl to doing time in prison and her work as a mistress. Are all these details really necessary?
But I wouldn't cut a word. Maybe they do things different in another country. Perhaps it's the reader, trained to read books with tight plots, minimal digression, and endings that seem drawn more from genre fiction -- the biter biting, the worm turning, the fatal weakness lifting the lever of tragedy -- than from the concatenation of events. Whatever. Reading this takes you out of the country and into a very different but familiar world. It's a cool book.