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Note: This was one of three Hard Case thriller reviews I wrote years ago, but never got around to publishing it on Logic. I found the Word .doc a few weeks ago, so I’ll be putting them up here. But expanded a little: originally I had the idiotic idea to do three three-paragraph reviews per post, something I wanted to rectify with this blog.

Lawrence Block is one of the most celebrated and notable of modern crime authors, with over fifty tight-knit, fast-paced novels to his name (plus assorted pseudonyms). Needless to say, such a prodigious body of work is bound to have novels slip through the cracks, and so Hard Case Crime has been picking up the lost gems and reprinted them. Such as this one, Killing Castro, a thriller from 1961 detailing the attempts to kill off the famed island dictator. [To be honest, this is the first one I read, though I never got around to posting the review, hence why I’ve mentioned it once or twice.]

Speaking of tightly-knit, fast-paced thrillers published under pseudonyms, this one was first printed under the one-time name of “Lee Duncan;” its original title was Fidel Castro Assassinated. And it rotted in obscurity for forty-some years until Charles Ardai’s Hard Case Crime reprinted it.

HCC 051 - 2009 - illo by Sharif Tarabay

Five men, each with their own motives and reasoning, are hired by Cuban expatriates and rebels to kill Fidel Castro. If any one of them succeeds, all the survivors are paid $20,000. The whole plot resides on a shoe-string budget—some of the would-be killers have to get into Cuba on their own power and dime—as well as the assumption that any of the five will be able to do the dirty deed. That thin premise builds up a tense two-hundred page story.

As each of the characters’ motives are revealed, and as they change over the days they spend waiting for Castro to pass by, the thriller starts to amp up. Some of the characters have personal problems—one is simply burned out, another is dying, and most of them are completely inexperienced. Motives and goals shift, and with so much on the line, the book really gets the blood flowing around the halfway point, wrapping up in a crescendo of action as all the killers’ varied plans are enacted. It’s a nice combination of characters, some unsavory, others naïve; they have a little depth to them, but only one does much development.

Instead, it’s interesting to see each of their plots pan out—or fail trying. Inter-party conflict, the lack of proper planning and training, and sheer dumb luck all conspire against these would-be assassins. The multi-angled, web-like plot is the novel’s strength: all these diverse characters, intertwined and criss-crossing in their endeavors to assassinate Fidel Castro.

As a buffer, perhaps to inform us more on Cuba, perhaps just to up the word count and make the story of a real size, there’s a number of chapters which give us the italicized history of Cuba. While informative, I found these a bit distracting from what was otherwise a speedy and tight-knit plot. While they might have been helpful in 1961, right after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion brought the situation in Cuba to front-page news, I have to assume that common knowledge of Cuba increased in the years after the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Another amazing cover for Hard Case, this time from Sharif Tarabay. Very gritty tones, a hot woman in revolutionary battledress, a Sten submachine gun, an X’d-out portrait of Castro, and a Cuban flag. The greys and greens create an oppressive atmosphere—it’s in Fortress Cuba, after all—and the blue tones bring out the flag and portrait. It’s another evocative, retro cover, with one small flaw: the novel’s main revolutionary woman had horrific scars from Communist torturing and would never reveal that much skin. (But that would be a much less interesting cover.)

Monarch MS1 - 1961 - artist unknown.

The novel is a simple potboiler designed around news headlines of its time. It’s incredibly fast-paced, though it still manages to humanize and develop the characters, making it very enjoyable. Like most of the Hard Case books, it made a good read over a couple of days, and was definitely entertaining, if brief. I enjoyed it; better yet, it introduced me to the novels of Lawrence Block. (Which is, honestly, one of the big reasons I read Hard Case Crime: to be introduced to major authors.)