Book Review: Queen of Bones by Teresa Dovalpage
By Doreen SheridanNovember 12, 2019
Teresa Dovalpage’s latest murder mystery Queen of Bones explores lingering grudges between old friends and lovers separated by Castro’s final sanctioned raft exodus.
Teresa Dovalpage has written a truly atmospheric mystery that delves deep into the theme of homecoming and all the secrets we think we leave behind. The novel’s greatest strength lies in Dovalpage’s excellent portrayal of an island nation that has retained its unique cultural identity even as it adapts to the times, and its parallel to protagonist Juan Chiong’s own personal development.
It’s been over twenty years since Juan Chiong fled Cuba for Miami, a perilous voyage by raft that took the life of one of his best friends and nearly killed him as well. America wasn’t quite all that he’d hoped for, but after moving to Albuquerque, he met and married Sharon, a real estate agent who combined her selling skills with his experience in construction to flip properties for a tidy profit. With restrictions against visiting Cuba loosening, Juan is intent on returning to the island to visit his aging grandmother as well as his father’s grave. Most of all, he wants to catch up with Victor, the third of ‘The Three Musketeers,’ as he and his best friends called themselves in college.
Sharon is eager to tag along, but Juan is reluctant to include her because he wants to find out what happened to the two girlfriends he left behind when he set out on his trip. One girlfriend, Rosita, he never wanted to see again, despite her mooning over him and ingratiating herself with his beloved abuela. The other, Elsa, was the spoiled wild-child daughter of a Cuban general who inexplicably changed her mind about fleeing the country with him. Juan is pretty sure his wife wouldn’t be thrilled at the rehashing of his past romantic life, so while they do travel to Havana together, he goes to see Victor alone. Or so he thinks, as Sharon decides to follow at a distance anyway.
To Juan’s surprise, Victor is now Victoria. Her teenage dreams of stardom, once grand enough to convince her to stay a big fish in Cuba instead of chancing it as a small fish in America, have led her to helm a popular cabaret. She took care of Juan’s family while Juan was prevented from returning home, and knows all the gossip to be had in a Havana that has undeniably changed in the two decades since Juan was last here. She also, of course, knows exactly what Elsa and Rosita are up to, and is happy to try to facilitate meetings, for her own small price.
When one of these women turns up dead shortly thereafter, Juan is almost immediately arrested. Lieutenant Marlene Martinez, the officer in charge of the investigation, quickly deduces that he wasn’t responsible for the homicide. Even so, the orders she gets from on high as to how to do her job do not sit well with her:
No, Chiong wasn’t a suspect. But Lieutenant Martínez was still seething about the way she had been ordered to act around him. When she informed La Seguridad, the Ministry of the Interior, that there was a foreigner involved, a Cuban American, they had forbidden her to record their conversation and basically told her to treat him with kid gloves. Unless she had concrete proof against him, they’d said she’d better let him go. Messing with an American tourist could harm the now-improved USA-Cuba relationship. “First the Yankees were the enemies,” she grumbled. “Now we’re kissing their asses. How crazy.”
As Lieutenant Martinez carefully navigates the politically fraught situation, she’s almost relieved to accept the help of her former mentor, Padrino, a practicing Santería priest and former detective on the Havana police force. Free of the constraints that bind the lieutenant, Padrino can go places and ask the hard questions she cannot. His efforts, however, may put his own life in jeopardy as more bodies begin to fall.
The Cuba depicted in these pages is a riotous blend of old and new, leaping off the pages as Juan compares his previous experiences with the Cuba he’s experiencing today. It is eye-opening to read how multi-faceted everyday life in Havana can be, as in the depiction of Juan’s abuela’s life, having married a Chinese Cuban man and raising her grandson after his mother’s death:
Abuela had taken, as best she could, his mother’s place. She would often bring Juan to her home on Zanja Street in the heart of Havana’s Chinatown. The old house had been full of Chinese dolls and lanterns; yellowish copies of the Kwong Wah Po, a weekly paper published in Chinese; and a floral smell that he wouldn’t know until many years later as opium. She was a Santería believer, a devotee of Oyá, and would leave offerings of fried eggplant and dark chocolate in the corners of the house or in the garden for the orisha. She also worshipped San Fancón, a syncretic deity of Chinese origin. The house now belonged to the Daughters of the Immaculate Heart, the nuns who had taken Abuela in.
Queen Of Bones is a rich exploration of Cuban life through the lens of a murder mystery involving a native son who’s come home to finally sort out the mysteries of his past. It’s a must-read for anyone who wants to know more about everyday life in Havana without the cost of a ticket there.