Real, captivating and ultimately moving, The Beggar's Opera by Peggy Blair is a significant addition to the murder mystery genre. It's a poignant and brutally honest story that paints a truly harrowing picture of poverty, abuse, corruption and abominable living conditions in Hemingway's Havana. It's dark, disturbing, thought-provoking, and heart-poundingly thrilling. Not by any means an easy-to-digest book, but one absolutely worth reading nevertheless.
Inspector Ricardo Ramirez is called in to investigate when the body of a little Cuban boy is discovered floating in the ocean in the Caleta de San Lazaro. Drugged, brutally raped and killed with a blow to the head, the boy had last been seen accepting money from a Canadian tourist, Mike Ellis. Witnesses saw Ellis giving the child money, and later on someone made an anonymous phone call to the police station stating that they witnessed a man with his description approaching young boys for sex in Parque Ciudad. A pair of men's briefs had been found in his room - the underwear had the boy's blood on it. Not to mention the polaroid photographs recovered from under the mattress in his hotel room - they were pictures documenting every step of the brutal rape. Mike Ellis has no memory of the previous evening - after the fight with his wife, he spent the night getting drunk at a local bar. It seems Inspector Ramirez has all the evidence he needs to convict the murderer and close the case, but is the case really as obvious as it appears? Or is there more to the story? Is Mike Ellis a cold blooded, vicious murderer, or is someone trying to frame him? With only seventy-two hours to solve the murder case, the race against time begins. Will justice be served?
The first book in the Inspector Ramirez Series is a taut and atmospheric thrill ride that keeps you guessing until the very last page. It's an exceptionally well-written murder mystery, set against a vividly depicted political and cultural background of Cuba. Blair writes with real understanding of Cuban harsh reality, compelling the reader with insights into the troubled society. Her knowledge about forensics, police procedures and related protocols is apparent on every page. The amount of detail is simply mind blowing. Disturbing at times, but mostly very impressive and fascinating. It's a gorgeously suspenseful mindbender, a great example of how the right approach to storytelling - scattering pieces of information throughout the novel, beautifully braiding together the convoluted threads, and diabolically building the tension and mystery - can elevate the book and turn it into a heart-stopping literary puzzle.
Blair did a remarkable job fleshing out the main character, Inspector Ramirez, making him one of the most unique and unforgettable narrative voices in recent fiction. I found him different from all the other detectives/inspectors in popular murder mysteries. Haunted by the ghosts of victims of his unsolved murder cases, dying of a rare (and incurable) type of dementia, struggling to keep his life from falling apart, he was a very convincing and easy-to-connect-with character. And as much as I loved the intelligent and provocative plot line, I think the whole thing wouldn't turn out nearly as good without the well-drawn, complex MC. His presence in the book added a lot of character and flavor, creating a memorable, eerie atmosphere, and turning a solid whodunit story into an absolute masterpiece.
The Beggar's Opera by Peggy Blair is a stunning debut novel and a very promising beginning to a great new mystery series. I'm looking forward to seeing what the author has in store for Inspector Ramirez in the next book.