Libby Fischer Hellmann, an award-winning author based in Chicago, has just published her tenth novel, Havana Lost, a sprawling mystery that spans several decades and reaches across several countries.
Hellmann’s previous work has garnered high praise and earned kudos from a variety of media, including Publishers Weekly, which has called some of her earlier titles “masterful” and “top-rate.” The author’s previous books include An Eye for Murder (Poisoned Pen Press, 2002), which was her first novel as well as the first of her Ellie Foreman mysteries; Easy Innocence (Bleak House Books, 2008), the first in her Georgia Davis series; and A Bitter Veil (Allium Press, 2012), a literary thriller set against the backdrop of the Iranian Revolution.
With Havana Lost, Hellmann has published a stand-alone mystery, something of a departure from her series work and other novels. Havana Lost begins in 1958 Cuba, on the eve of revolution. (Oddly, the book opens with a quote from Winston Churchill, whose ties to that particular conflict are tenuous at best.) The novel begins with the story of Francesca Pacelli, the headstrong daughter of a Mafia boss who owns a lush hotel and casino in Havana during its heyday. Francesca’s father would like his restless young daughter to marry the respectable man who has been courting her and move to Chicago with him. Francesca, however, has other ideas.
And so begins this winding tale of family, greed, and revenge, with a dash of sex and romance mixed in for good measure. Also tossed in are a couple of unplanned pregnancies, a few kidnappings, a would-be treasure, and several corpses.
Hellmann has populated Havana Lost with numerous characters (several of whom don’t make it to the end), individuals who take the reader from Cuba to Mexico to the United States to Angola over the span of about six decades, from the 1950s to the present day. Fast-paced and replete with twists and turns, Havana Lost explores how decisions affect not only those who make them, but those around them as well—decisions that may reverberate for years, from generation to generation.
Hellmann does a fine job of evoking the restless, revolutionary spirit that imbues many of her characters. The decline of Havana from its mid-century glory days to its blighted present is palpable. It’s clear that Hellmann has done her research; indeed, she visited Cuba in 2012, and it seems much of that research has found its way into the book. Unfortunately, however, it can feel in Havana Lost as though the author is trying to prove how well she knows Cuba—which seems vaguely unnecessary as most readers will have never been there and few could contest whether she got the details completely right. Sometimes, flavor is more important than ingredients.
Although the setting(s) featured so vividly in Havana Lost may be believable, the story’s numerous characters and multiple plot twists make the novel feel unconvincing overall. Characters seem to come and go as the story shifts its focus from one person to another and from one place to another. As a result, it’s difficult to become fully invested in any single character, making for some frustrating reading.
Some readers have praised Havana Lost as intriguing, exceptional, and engrossing. And indeed, Hellmann does a fair job in general with pacing and imagery. But the tale of Francesca Pacelli and the people in her life seems woven together with thick yarn rather than fine thread, yielding a story that often feels clumsy.
Havana Lost is the author’s first self-published venture, under the aegis of The Red Herrings Press. The book may have benefited from a tougher edit (and a cleaner design), but readers who have enjoyed Hellmann’s previous titles may very well find something to like here.
August 2013, The Red Herrings Press
$16.99, paperback, 281 pages
Learn more about Libby Fischer Hellmann.
“I think that I’ve tried many times to get Cuba in my writings, especially Havana, which was once a great and fascinating city.”
—Guillermo Cabrera Infante
—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen