Review: The Cuban Affair by Nelson DeMille

The Cuban Affair by Nelson DeMille is a blistering new novel featuring an exciting new character—U.S. Army combat veteran Daniel “Mac” MacCormick, now a charter boat captain, who is about to set sail on his most dangerous cruise.

All 35-year-old Army vet Daniel “Mac” MacCormick wants to do is take out fishing groups on his charter boat, The Maine, make a little money, and enjoy the Key West sunsets. When he’s approached with a job by a lawyer named Carlos Macia, known for being heavily involved with anti-Castro groups, he’s admittedly a little suspicious.

“I’m interested in chartering your boat for a cruise to Cuba.”

I didn’t respond.

“There is a fishing tournament, sailing from here to Havana in a few weeks.”

“Does the Cuban Navy know about this?”

He smiled. “This is an authorized event, of course—the Pescando Por la Paz.” He reminded me, “We are normalizing relations. The Cuban Thaw.”

“Right.” I’d heard about the new fishing tournament with the double-entendre name—Pescando Por la Paz, Fishing for Peace—but I wasn’t involved in it. Back in the Nineties, before my time, there used to be regular fishing tournaments and sailing regattas between the U.S. and Cuba, including the seventy-year-old Hemingway Tournament, but George II put a stop to all that. Now it was opening up again. The Cuban Thaw. The Key West Chamber of Commerce even had a new slogan: “Two Nations, One Vacation.” Catchy, but not happening yet.

Carlos asked, “So, are you interested?”

I drank some beer. Well, maybe this was all legit, and Carlos didn’t want me to sail into Havana Harbor and blow up The Maine, or rescue some dissidents or something.

Mac is ready to dismiss Carlos until he utters the words “two million.” That gets Mac listening. In fact, Carlos is offering $30k for the tournament and $2 million payable upon completion of a job in Cuba. Uh oh. But Carlos drives a hard bargain, especially since Mac has a hefty bank loan on The Maine. Mac is still rightfully suspicious but agrees to host Carlos’s friends on his boat to hear more about the job. It’s then that he meets the lovely Sara Ortiz. But first, we meet his first mate, Jack Colby, a 70-year-old Army vet.

Jack’s world view and prejudices are a generational thing, I think, and he reminds me in some ways of my father, who grew up in what amounts to another country. Jack Colby and Webster MacCormick are unknowable to me because their screwed-up heads were screwed up in a screwed-up war that was different from my screwed-up war. Also, I had the impression from both of them that they’d like to go back to that other country. My generation, on the other hand, has no nostalgia for the past, which was screwed up when we arrived.

When Carlos’s clients, Eduardo and Sara, arrive on the boat, Mac is ready to hear them out—and the offer is an interesting one. It involves smuggling $60 million out of a cave in Cuba and bringing it back to the states aboard The Maine, using the fishing tournament as cover. Dangerous? Yes. But it’s nothing Mac isn’t used to. And anyway, getting to travel with Sara is a plus.

When they touch down in Cuba, they meet up with a sanctioned tour group of Yale alumni—Americans may only visit for educational reasons—which is just about the only way they can move around Cuba relatively safely. But eyes are always on them, and Mac has no patience for the tour group, with their rigid itinerary and mind-numbing presentations on Cuban history and culture. No worries, though, because Mac’s trip is about to get much more exciting.

I’m a huge Nelson DeMille fan. I enjoy everything he writes, but I especially enjoy his John Corey series. If you like those books, you’ll dig Mac. Mac is as much of a smart mouth as John:

Antonio was about thirty-five, not bad-looking and he knew it. He gazed out at the group, smiled, spread his arms, and shouted, “Buenas noches!”

A few people returned the greeting, but not enough people apparently, because Antonio shouted again, “Buenas noches!”

The response was better and Antonio flashed his pearly whites. “Bienvenido. Welcome to Cuba. Welcome to Havana.” He let us know, “This is a beautiful group. And intelligent, I am sure.”

I asked Sara, “What is the Spanish word for bullshit?”

She gave me an elbow in the ribs. 

But, of course, their lives are wildly divergent: Mac has military training, but he’s not a cop, so there’s no badge to get him out of a jam. Not that it would matter much in a police state. Mac and Sara are constantly on the lookout for government informants, which could be anyone, including their obnoxious tour guide, Antonio. It also doesn’t help that the plan isn’t quite set in stone and could go wrong in so many ways. Mac’s burgeoning romance with Sara adds another complication as well and causes him to reflect on his brushes with death:

My own face-offs with death had made me see death differently. Death had become not a possibility, but a probability, so I made peace with that dark horseman, and that peace has stayed with me on my borrowed time.

I looked at Sara, who was engaged in a conversation with four men who obviously found her to be the life of an otherwise dull and awkward icebreaker party. It would be ironic, I thought, if I finally found the love of my life on the eve of … whatever.

For anyone fascinated with Cuba (like me), this is a special treat. DeMille made a trip to Cuba prior to writing the novel, which in my opinion, is a must to write about such a fascinating, enigmatic place. Mac and Sara—who is Cuban American and has an emotional and familial attachment to the country—are fantastically fun tour guides. DeMille’s trademark fast pace and clever twists and turns are on display, making this an exciting thriller set in a country that remains a mystery to the rest of the world—one that seemingly exists in a time warp. I’ll follow Mac anywhere, and I can’t wait for the next book!

 

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Kristin Centorcelli reviews books at mybookishways.com, loves a good mystery, and is a huge fan of boxed wine. You can also follow her at @mybookishways.

Read all posts by Kristin Centorcelli for Criminal Element.

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