On July 20, 2015, diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba were restored. And this past March, President and Michelle Obama visited the island nation. Airlines are scrambling to be approved for flights to Cuba and other companies who profit from tourism are lining up.
What negotiations really happened behind the scenes to bring about normalization of relations? In his new novel, Ghosts of Havana, Todd Moss imagines how it all might have gone down. Names, of course, have been changed, but the plot seems plausible, probably because Moss knows what he’s talking about. Now a senior fellow at a DC think tank, from 2007 to 2008 Moss served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State where he was responsible for diplomatic relations with 16 West African countries. A few weeks before the Obamas landed in Cuba, Moss was there and wrote about his experience in USA Today: “There are constant reminders that Cuba is a totalitarian state,,,[but] I left with the sense that Cuba was on the verge of major transformation.” That’s the Cuba we see in Ghosts of Havana, a country on the brink of change, but still holding onto the ghosts from its past.
This is Moss’s third installment, after Minute Zero and The Golden Hour, starring Judd Ryker, and his wife, Jessica. Formerly a college professor known for “teasing out patterns in data to uncover what was really going on,” Judd was recruited by the State Department to set up a Crisis Reaction Unit. Jessica is a CIA operative good at keeping secrets, even from her husband. The two have just returned from a harrowing assignment in Zimbabwe with a very positive outcome. During that assignment, Jessica apparently came to Judd’s aid and he realized that there was more to his wife than her good looks. (Since I jumped into this series without reading the previous books, more backstory about Judd and Jessica would have helped flesh out the characters.)
What begins as a seemingly innocent fishing trip by four poker buddies turns into an international incident. After their boat, aptly named The Big Pig, leaves U.S. waters, they draw fire from the Cuban army and soon find themselves prisoners being paraded before TV audiences in orange jumpsuits. Two of the men – Alejandro Cabrera and Brinkley Barrymore III – have an agenda that they haven’t shared with their two friends. But when it becomes apparent that those plans have gone awry, their capture places not only their own lives but the future of U.S.- Cuba relations in jeopardy.
Judd’s boss, Langdon Parker, the Secretary of State’s chief of staff, enlists Judd’s help. Yet in this case, as in previous ones, Judd finds himself in over his head. And, once again, he will find himself depending on his wife to get him out of a dangerous situation.
In this husband-wife partnership, Jessica not only has the brains, but also the brawn. She survives being chased and shot at through Florida’s swamps and has no trouble piloting a technically advanced helicopter into enemy territory. All this while taking care of her two young children on a Florida vacation that turns out to be anything but. Talk about multi-tasking!
Judd, meanwhile, should rethink leaving academia. He’s smart but no Jason Bourne or 007. One has to wonder why Parker keeps throwing him into situations where even a skilled operative would have difficulty escaping alive. In the end, that’s part of the appeal of both Judd and Jessica, a couple that turns on its head our thinking about what makes a good spy. Jessica has the grit and experience, but Judd’s naivete and inexperience allow him to gain people’s trust, as he does when he comes face to face with the volatile Oswaldo Guerro, “the Devil of Santiago,” and the power behind Cuba’s president.
There are the requisite shady characters: the CIA head known only as the Director of Operations; tough as nails Congresswoman Brenda Adelman-Zamora; billionaire Ruben Sandoval, with roots in Cuba; and “Ricky,” who is doing more than just renting boats in Marathon, Florida.
Ghosts of Havana is a plot-driven, rather than a character-driven mystery. It’s enough to keep the pages turning – very quickly, in fact – but at the end we feel we hardly know Judd and Jessica or, for that matter, many of the other players in this international drama. Filling in some of those blanks wold elevate what is already a terrific read.
Ghosts of Havana
Top photo: January 11 2016: Typical scene of one of streets in the center of Santiago de cuba – Colorful architecture people walking around and vintage american cars in the roads. Santiago is the 2nd largest city in Cuba. Bigstock photo.