The Beggar's Opera is an impressive debut novel

The Beggar’s Opera by Peggy Blair
Penguin, 2012, 346 pages
$24.00

Like many of my fellow countrymen, I have visited the sunny climes of Cuba to escape Canadian winters. And like most visitors to the tiny Caribbean island, I have not given a lot of thought to the lives of the people who cooked my meals, made up my hotel room and taxied me about – all with beaming smiles on their faces.

The authoritarian society and its aging and reclusive El Comandante, Fidel Castro, are always there in the background, but for most vacationers who spend their 7 or 14 days behind the gates of the heavily secured luxury resorts, it is easy to “ignore” the grinding poverty that faces most Cubans and the myriad of conflicting rules and regulations under which they live.

In her impressive debut mystery novel, The Beggar’s Opera, Ottawa author Peggy Blair takes her readers beyond the resorts revealing a world of corrupt police officials, sex tourism, abusive Catholic priests, and bureaucratic ineptitude and red-tape, centring her story around the brutal rape and murder of Arturo Montenegro a young Cuban street beggar in Old Havana.

Blair has introduced a very capable investigator in Inspector Ricardo Ramirez, head of the Havana Major Crimes Unit, who is assigned to the case -- under pressure, at least indirectly, from El Comandante himself -- to bring about a quick conviction to set an example. To add to the book's quirky flavour, Ramirez is apparently dying from an inherited disease that causes hallucinations. In this case, his hallucinations just happen to be the ghosts of the victims of murders he is investigating.

What should make the story a tad chilling for Canadian readers is the fact that the main suspect is a vacationing Canadian policeman, Mike Ellis, who is in Cuba trying to patch up his failing marriage. After his wife abruptly returns to Canada, Ellis goes on a Christmas Eve bender in the company of a prostitute, soon finding himself behind bars as all fingers point to him in what appears to be an open and shut case. 

Enter Ottawa attorney, Celia Jones, who is sent to Cuba by Ellis’ boss to get to the bottom of things. And get to the bottom of things she does as she grapples with the vagarities of Cuban law and corrupt police officials and wary Cuban civilians to uncover the truth within an imposed 72 hour time frame.

Without giving too much of the story away, let's just say Jones and Inspector Ramirez combine to solve the case. Along the way, Blair throws numerous curve-balls and plot twists at readers -- all guaranteed to keep them up reading into the wee hours. The book's last few chapters reveal surprise after surprise as the story's loose ends are wrapped up.

Blair introduces readers to an intriguing cast of supporting characters, including forensic scientist Hector Apiro and prostitute Maria Vasquez who is not all she seems to be, and various doormen and bartenders - most of whom seem to be on the make.

To be sure, The Beggar's Opera will resonate best with Canadian readers who have spent some time in Cuba, especially those who have wandered off their resorts to visit Old Havana and walk the fabled Malecon, the book's primary setting.

It seems apparent to this reviewer that Blair has a somewhat critical disdain of Cuba's dysfunctional society and its political leaders as evidenced by her "editorializing" throughout the story. But, perhaps I'm reading too much into it. She may simply be trying to make Canadian vacationers more aware of what goes on beyond the walls of their 4 Star resorts.

This is an impressive first effort - it was shortlisted for the Crime Writers Association Debut Dagger for 2010 -- and I look forward to finding out what Inspector Ramirez and company are up to in future instalments in the series.

(Out of 4 Stars)

Richard Young is the Publisher/Managing Editor of The Beat Magazine and an avid reader of Crime/Mystery novels.

(Editor's Note - You can listen to Peggy Blair's recent appearance with Shelaigh Rogers on CBC Radio at http://www.cbc.ca/books/2012/06/peggy-blair-on-the-beggars-opera.html)


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