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Cuban-born Latour's eighth book, the third novel he's written in English, pits Cuban crooks against an American crime boss in bustling, pre-Communist Havana. It's 1958, and Meyer Lansky is looking to make a killing-not just from his casino, but from all the betting on the World Series between the Yankees and the Milwaukee Braves. But mobsters Joe Bonanno and Joseph Profaci, Meyer's New York-based rivals, want a piece of the action, so they assemble a home team of criminals to rob Lansky's casino on the last night of the series. Led by Mariano "Ox" Contreras (so-called for the first thing he ever stole), they're a lively gang of smalltime swindlers, including "Wheel" Fermin, a short, balding and surprisingly prudish car thief, Arturo Heller, a smooth ex-law student, and Willy Pi, a former prostitute and cork bark collector who works at Lansky's Casino de Capri. Their heist-despite having to begin two hours ahead of schedule owing to the death of Pope Pius XII, in whose honor the casino plans to close early-goes very well. But it doesn't go perfectly, which gives the Bureau of Investigations, in the person of Col. Orlando Grava, a place to work from. Meyer Lansky, who's good friends with the struggling President Batista, can't wait to get his hands on the culprits either. But can anyone, good guy or bad, be fully trusted? Latour's occasionally stilted prose ("for of late he had become a man of archaic immorality") hardly detracts from a lively, entertaining read.
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Thrillers set in Cuba have been washing up on these shores at an ever-increasing rate (see "Cuban Noir" [BKL My 1 03]), but in terms of verisimilitude, Cuban-born Latour's work stands apart. In Outcast (1999), he put a human face on the daily deprivations of life in contemporary Cuba; this time he looks behind the neon decadence of pre-Castro, Mafia-run Havana. In a documentary-like narrative that combines the gritty fatalism of Bob Le Flambeur and the meticulous detail of Ocean's Eleven, Latour tells the story of a gang of Cuban crooks, funded by New York Mob boss Joe Bonanno, who sets out to rob Meyer Lansky's Capri casino on the last day of the 1958 World Series (when the coffers are overflowing). The portraits of Lansky, Bonnano, and the other gangsters are full-bodied, but it's the fictional blue-collar crooks, led by mastermind Ox Contreras, who give the novel its appeal and afford the best view of Cuban life. Although the documentary style occasionally seems flat, it contrasts nicely with the richness of detail and quirkiness of character. Bill Ott
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