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Book Author: Peggy Blair

THE BEGGAR’S OPERA by Peggy Blair: Book Review

Fidel Castro’s Cuba takes center stage in Peggy Blair’s debut mystery The Beggar’s Opera.  As I say in my slightly-less-than-fluent Spanish, the book is muy, muy bueno.

Mike and Hillary Ellis, visitors to Cuba from Ottawa, are having a tough week.  The Ellises have been followed by a group of small boys begging for change, one of whom is more persistent than the others.  When Mike gives the child some pesos in spite of Hillary’s admonition not to, that seems to be the last straw for her, and she announces that she’s changed her reservation and will be flying home alone that evening.

Mike, who is a police detective, was on disability leave following the murder of his partner and his own attack by a knife-wielding suspect who was killed.  Now on vacation, Mike is determined to finish the rest of his week in Havana.  He goes into El Bar mi Media Naranja (Half an Orange), Hemingway’s favorite drinking place, and before long is approached by a jinetera, a prostitute; after downing several drinks, Ellis leaves the bar with her.  In the morning he awakes, alone, and his wallet and badge are gone.

Ricardo Ramirez is a police detective in Havana.  Early on Christmas Day he receives a phone call that the body of a young boy has been found on the rocks beneath the Malecon, Havana’s promenade.  The father of two young children, Ricardo is particularly anxious to solve this case, and it looks as if it will be easy.  A wallet was found on the boy’s body, and the passport with it is in the name of Mike Ellis.

When Ricardo and his colleague Rodriguez Sanchez bring Mike to the police station to interview him, he begins to understand how much trouble he is in.  At first he thinks he’s there because he asked the doorman at his hotel to report his missing wallet, badge, and passport to the police, and he is surprised by the amount of time the police are putting into the case.

“I broke the law by giving him money?” Mike asks.  “I’ll pay the fine then. I had no idea you people took this kind of thing so seriously.”  Detective Sanchez gives the suspect a disgusted look.  “The rape and murder of a child, Senor Ellis, is taken very seriously in Cuba.  We punish it by firing squad.”

The detectives have already searched Mike’s hotel room, no search warrant being needed in that country if a crime is suspected.  Mike is not entitled to a lawyer, but Ricardo does allow him to call his chief of police in Ottawa.  And although it’s Christmas Day, the chief arranges for Celia Jones, the police department’s attorney, to fly down to Havana to find out what’s going on.  Mike is slightly reassured, but his memory of the night before is so vague; can he really be certain that he didn’t kill young Arturo Montenegro?

The Beggar’s Opera is a fascinating book, with well-drawn characters and a city that is both familiar and exotic to most Americans.  There are three surprises at the end of the book, and each one is believable and satisfying.

You can read more about Peggy Blair at this web site.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Reads blog at her web site.