Havana Nocturne by T.J. English

I heard about this book on NPR and it sounded fascinating, and after reading Tokyo Vice by Jake Adelstein last year I thought I’d broaden my knowledge of organized crime.  I watched a couple seasons of The Sopranos, studied The Godfather in film school, and know a bit about the mafia in Sicily from reading Andrea Camilleri’s mysteries, but, really, I know very little about the mob or organized crime.  English clearly does, and at times I felt I was reading a sequel to a book I hadn’t read.  The politics of organized crime were new to me, and I didn’t always follow all the players.

As a book about Cuba in the 1950’s, it’s fascinating.  The Mob owned the best hotels and casinos in Havana, with the help of the corrupt government of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista.  Havana was like Vegas, but tropical and exotic.  It was a playground of sex and excess.  English includes stories on various celebrities’ visits to Havana and what they got up to, including a story of JFK and an orgy.

I wish he’d included more on how the economics of the Mob-run tourist industry affected the average citizens of Havana.  There are stories of a few people who worked for Meyer Lansky and other bosses, but nothing about how people in Havana felt about their city being seen as a decadent tourist destination.  So when English covers the people of Cuba’s support for Castro and his Revolution, it’s hard to put in context except that he offered an alternative to Batista’s corrupt regime.  There’s no explanation for why some Cubans stayed and supported Castro, while others fled the country.  Not knowing the history of the situation, I would have like a little bit more.

Overall, though, it’s a well-written, very interesting book on a subject few people know much about these days.  And a primer on how far organized crime can go with a willing government as an accomplice.

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March 2, 2010. Tags: . Books.

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