STARRED REVIEW. Dressed in the grungy trappings of a crime drama, this literary tour-de-force from Padura (Grab a Snake by the Tail) offers a colorful cultural history of Cuba and the island’s historical contact with Europe that helped to shape its people’s religious beliefs. Detective Mario Conde, an aging former cop, is hired by his old school friend, Bobby, to recover a statue of the Virgin of Regla, a Black madonna integral to Bobby’s worship of Santeria. The statue was stolen by Bobby’s lover, Raydel, but when Raydel and a confederate turn up murdered and high-end art dealers begin mingling with the suspects, Conde realizes Bobby’s statue has more than just sentimental value. As Conde’s adventures lead him into increasingly dangerous waters, an alternate narrative thread follows the statue’s ownership back through time to the Crusades and the Knights Templar—a pedigree it shares with the eponymous statue of The Maltese Falcon, thus referencing the Bogart films adored by Conde. (In an inspired bar scene midway through, Conde, after receiving a lump on the back of the head while interviewing one of Raydel’s associates, imagines he’s Bogart while ordering a drink with the lift of a finger.) The author forges a wondrous connection between the past and present through his characters’ faith in the statue’s occult powers and through a vivid portrait of a decayed Havana, where vestiges of opulence glimmer in the ravages of time. Padura’s novel will appeal equally to genre fans and lovers of literary thrillers. Publishers Weekly
In Cuban author Leonardo Padura’s “The Transparency of Time” Mario Conde, a former Havana cop, is approaching 60 and feeling the existential weight of his age. Mario, who supplements his income as an antiquarian bookdealer with the occasional PI assignment, finds that “his state of mind . . . was more and more marked by sadness and melancholy . . . because of the certainty of having failed abysmally at life.” In this gloomy mood, Mario receives a visit from his old school chum Roberto “Bobby” Roque Rosell, a successful dealer in objets d’art and the victim of a recent theft of his most prized possession: a Black Madonna statue. Won’t Mario recover this relic, without causing the arrest of its probable thief, Bobby’s vanished boyfriend with whom he is still in love? Mario takes the case and is soon up to his neck in a perplexing imbroglio involving false identity, Miami connections and multiple murders. “Well, this looks more like a Raymond Chandler book,” says a literary acquaintance of Mario’s, “including the blow to the head you got.”
Mr. Padura’s grandiose novel of social and magical realism, translated from the Spanish by Anna Kushner, is thick with discursive episodes, including chapters following a custodian of the Black Madonna in the late-13th century and onward. The patient reader will see all threads tied up in a finale that nonetheless leaves Mario wondering whether all he’s endured has been “real or merely a reflection . . . a trick of time.” Wall Street Journal
From Padura, the crime fiction legend and giant of LatAm noir, comes a new Mario Conde novel, this one an epic occult history that leaps through time, place, and ideology to deliver one of the strangest, most alluring crime novels in years. Conde, now sixty and as ever full of disillusions and nostalgia, receives a new client, a former Marxist turned Santeria practitioner who wants Conde to track down a powerful statuette, la Virgen de Regla. It seems like Padura is getting more ambitious with each book, and here he’s bent the structures of the crime novel into an investigation on the astral plane, one that also happens to be a revealing commentary on the state of modern Cuba and the world pressing in on it. CrimeReads
Cuban author Padura’s ninth Mario Conde Havana-set novel moves a major step beyond mere exotic investigations and broadens its canvas to encompass a fascinating historical context which raises the novel to new standards. Conde is now melancholy, retired from the police force and nearing his sixtieth birthday, his body showing early signs of failure, his once steadfast faith in the Cuban revolution increasingly riven by doubts and beset by money problems as his side activities in the book business are no longer sufficiently profitable. An Old Marxist acquaintance with ties to Santeria, the local voodoo scene, engages Mario to track down the stolen statue of the Virgen de Regla, the Black Madonna, a quest which will figuratively take him back to the early Crusades as history and investigation become intricately entwined. The novel spans the arc of history from medieval times to the Spanish civil war and the colourful tale attains a fresco-like intensity in the way the burden of time weighs on the present and Conde’s endeavours. Yet again Havana comes to life as much a character in the books as Conde, but also a subtle dissection as to how the modern world is inexorably encroaching into the ideals of a man of political faith. As evidenced by earlier books outside of the Mario Conde series, Padura is increasingly subverting the crime genre to stunning literary effect and this yet another splendid read with a powerful undertone.’ Crime Time (Maxim Jakubowski)
To say that Padura’s detective hero, Mario Conde, is world-weary is to risk understatement. He’s almost 60, tired, fully aware that the clock is ticking: “Among his three friends, he was the one sure to lift his glass the most times, fully aware that he sought the beneficial state of unconsciousness,” writes Padura. “And whenever the recurring subject of frustrations, losses, and abandonments came up, he was the one who understood it as a matter of principles.” Working more on his side hustle than on sleuthing, Conde haunts secondhand bookshops looking for treasures to sell. Meanwhile, Bobby Roque, an old high school friend, has been plying a better trade selling rare works of art—sometimes forgeries—to the American market. Bobby’s boyfriend, however, has stepped on that lucrative business by pilfering his goodies, including a rare Black Madonna, supposedly the Virgin of Regla. Problem is, the statue doesn’t quite match the canonical requirements of the icon, giving Padura a chance to explore the religious symbolism of Spanish Catholicism as it intersects with Santería, the African tradition in which Bobby has become an adept, shedding his former doctrinaire Marxism and his pretended straightness, put on “so that everyone in our macho-socialist homeland would believe that I was what I should have been and wouldn’t take everything away from me.” The story of the theft is a fairly straightforward matter, with the usual red herrings. What is of more interest to readers looking between the lines is Padura’s unforgiving portrait of the Cuba of 2014, a couple of years before Fidel Castro’s death, in which there are definite haves and have-nots, the latter of whom live in shantytowns and lack “running water, sewers, electricity, or the ration books that guaranteed Cuban citizens minimum subsistence at subsidized prices.” In such appalling conditions, the loss of a religious statue should seem a small thing—though, of course, it’s not.
An elegant blend of mystery and sociology by one of Cuba’s most accomplished writers. Kirkus Reviews