- Paul Goldstein
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux
- 308 pp.
- Reviewed by Ron Liebman
- June 13, 2012
The sights and sounds of Cuba come alive in this legal thriller involving murder, an interesting love interest and international big-business intrigue.
Reviewed by Ron Liebman
Here is an excellent reason not to judge a book by its cover, or even the first few pages:
I wasn’t too far into Paul Goldstein’s new novel, Havana Requiem, when I thought, oh boy, this is going to be a tough slog.
The story revolves around some senior-citizen Cuban musicians trying to get their copyrights back for very old musical compositions, a lawyer protagonist who specializes in copyright law and a plot line of murder and intrigue. In addition to being a novelist (this is the third time his lawyer character, Michael Seeley, has appeared in his fiction), Goldstein is a Stanford law professor, a practicing lawyer and an author of several legal treatises in his field of expertise, intellectual property law.
Copyright law and intrigue? Give me a break, I thought, as I soldiered on, faced with what looked to be a tired version of The Buena Vista Social Club meets John Grisham lite. I turned a few more pages and then the story, and the writing, kicked into gear.
Lead character Michael Seeley has recently been readmitted to his old law firm after having been dismissed because of his out-of-control drinking and its consequences to his client work. His marriage has failed and he has lost his big office to another partner. Through an older lawyer with whom he is acquainted, the Cuban musician Hector Reynoso is referred to him for representation. Reynoso manages to travel from Cuba to New York to see Seeley. He is an impoverished artist, skin and bones, yet nattily dressed in his threadbare snappy attire. “His suitcase, scuffed and worn, was a cardboard imitation of tweed and leather straps, but the way the old man clutched it to his chest, the valise held his most precious belongings.” And it does, stuffed with his music.
Over the continuing objection of one of his law firm partners (the one who got Seeley’s big office and who we later learn has some of his own skin in the game), Seeley takes on the case of Reynoso and his fellow musicians. This necessitates a trip to Cuba.
With a major trial about to start in Boston, and Seeley’s trusted associate, a talented young female lawyer, holding down his New York fort, Seeley makes his way to Havana. He needs to gather the signatures of the aging musicians before a legal deadline passes, the consequence of which would be a loss of ownership rights to the various publishing houses who acquired those rights for a song (pun intended) and are making millions on this music that plays in elevators, is used as soundtracks for commercials and so on.
Goldstein’s description of Havana, its sights, sounds and people puts the reader into the city. We are there with Seeley, standing just out of sight, as he navigates his way through his assignment. The writing evokes everything I have read about the present-day state of Cuba, from the paint peeling colonial buildings to the aging fleet of oversized pre-revolution American cars with their noxious exhaust fumes.
Goldstein lets his plot lines out like an expert fisherman with a baited hook. The story involves not only his aging musicians but police and intelligence officers, some brute force, murder, an interesting love interest and a bit of international big-business intrigue.
The love interest is Amaryll Cruz, a dark beauty femme fatale whose estranged dissident husband is languishing in a Cuban jail. Seeley first sees her standing on her apartment balcony, and then takes a drive with her in her broken down Russian mini-car.
“On the balcony, Amaryll’s beauty had been a fleeting impression, like a painting glimpsed through passing figures in a museum. Now so close, her head turning left, then right as she maneuvered in the city traffic, she was a puzzle work of features in the corner of Seeley’s eye: high cheekbones; full pensively set lips; large, dark eyes. Beneath each eye was the slightest gradation of flesh that could be yet another fine angle of bone or the weary slash of too many sleepless nights. The thin dress rose negligently above long legs, as she worked the clutch and brake.”
Seeley and Amaryll’s amorous relationship bucks the odds. Still, we root for them and are unsure of their fate until the book’s end. And the music itself is more than a collection of song sheets containing some antiquated Cuban golden oldies. It embodies roots of island culture, pre-revolution, and the feelings and emotions it invokes present a danger to Fidel, Raul and their henchmen.
Michael Seeley is an interesting protagonist and Goldstein does a good job of describing his demons and his strength of character. I could quibble that the New York lawyers and some of the Cubans are not as deeply drawn, and their conversations are stiffer and less realistic than they could be, but my involvement in the story let that pass. As I said, I was placed in Cuba and saw firsthand what happened.
To construct a legal thriller out of a copyright case is no easy task. Paul Goldstein has done just that to his credit and our reading pleasure.
Ron Liebman is a lawyer, author and musician. His most recent novel is Jersey Law (Simon and Schuster, 2011).