A large piece of the Hard Case Crime series has been reprints of older, “lost” stories written by famous authors. They have almost always been entertaining reads, even if the quality hasn’t been consistent with the writers’ better-known works. The several Lawrence Block reprints in particular have ranged from Borderline on the bad side to Lucky at Cards and The Girl With the Long Green Heart on the very good side.
Killing Castro (1961) is another pseudonymous early book that Block wrote at an editor’s request: Chris Heckelmann of Monarch Books wanted a title featuring a crew of Americans who travel into Cuba to assassinate its dictator. Heckelmann had anticipated Castro’s imminent demise and wanted Block to rush a product to take advantage. He did something similar with a certain Donald Westlake, hiring that unproven writer to make a biography of an at-the-time frequently ill Elizabeth Taylor.
So while the inspiration behind KC may not have been totally altruistic, Block managed to put together a professional adventure yarn. A crew of five men are recruited by Cuban expatriates to infiltrate the island and assassinate Castro. Block spends the early chapters differentiating the characters, and their motivations for joining such a desperate mission:
- Mike Turner, a wandering laborer, is evading the law after committing a double-murder, a crime of passion, in South Carolina.
- Jim Hines, a Cornell student with no relevant experience, is out to avenge his older brother, an idealist who joined the revolution but was executed by Castro afterward. The recollections of Jim’s older brother seem to be inspired by the story of William Alexander Morgan.
- Matt Garth, a large ex-convict, is a simple-minded thug who doesn’t pay much mind to the danger of the mission. He’s clearly the bad apple at the beginning of the mission, crudely harassing, and then assaulting, the female revolutionary he meets after landing in Cuba.
- Earl Fenton, a single bank teller who looks like an accountant, is looking to earn a big payday before his lung cancer diagnosis catches up to him.
- Ray Garrison, an ex-marine and “take-charge type” who relies on his own methods to get into Cuba, is a hardened killer for-hire and considers the plot a routine payday.
The target of Garth’s aggression (he also beats up Fenton to get him out of the way), a Castro torture victim named Maria, is featured on the Hard Case Crime edition. However, she is a short-lived character whose fate is decided soon after a succession of several sex scenes between some of the American mercenaries and various Cubans. If one were to read a purpose into the scenes (besides filling out a salacious and violent pulp novel), it would be the readiness of any foreign interest — especially American — to exploit Cuba at the nearest opportunity.
After reading the first third of KC, I made a list of which of the five would-be assassins would be alive at the end of the story, and which one would ultimately kill Castro (or come the closest). I was wrong about the former — although I guessed right about who would be the first to go — but correct about the latter, so Block managed to surprise me some of the time. He did use the characters of Garrison and Turner to confound the gun-for-hire archetype rather effectively, and allows his readers to get a sense of each major character in a small amount of space.
The main action scene, a raid on Castro’s motorcade as it passes through a jungle highway, is the centerpiece of the book:
The Lincoln was in range now. Fenton looked directly at it, looking at the gleaming metal, the drawn curtains. He steadied himself and his gun, pointing the barrel at one of the windows in the rear. At any moment Garth and Jimenez would start shooting. That would be the cue.
Damn it all, go on!
His heart stopped beating for those two seconds. He had an awful premonition of disaster and death that refused to leave his mind. His hands gripped the Sten gun shakily.
Then a shot rang out.
The firefight that follows is well done, but in general the urban and jungle settings of Cuba were not particularly evocative, and the actions of the locals felt generic. This is mostly likely an outcome of writing the book with help of library research (there a several passages describing Castro’s rise to power), rather than interactions with Cubans or Cuban-American exiles.
KC is a short read, professionally done with a cast of unambiguous, if not very interesting, characters. The “history” chapters that interleave the adventure story are an evenhanded perspective and hold up well, given the subsequent political evolution of Cuba. The 1962 missile crisis allowed Castro to openly turn to Communism and the Soviet Union. He never did get deposed or assassinated, as anticipated by so many Americans, but after many years he was succeeded by another dictator in his mold. 5/10.
NOTE: I forgot to mention this review, which finds more to appreciate in the non-Castro chapters of KC.
Yeah, that about sums it up. Well written, but still just work for hire, nowhere near the best Block was capable of then.
It reminds me a bit of the ‘Operation’ novels Dan J. Marlowe wrote about his sociopathic bank robber turned spy, Earl Drake. Only without any pretense that all this evil somehow translates into good. It’s just evil against evil, until somebody makes a personal choice, that has nothing to do with politics.
What’s shocking about it, of course, is the ending–like if Day of the Jackal ended with De Gaulle’s assassination. Tarantino went for much the same shock effect in Inglorious Bastards. Screw history. I didn’t know the backstory to this book (came across the reprint on vacation, in a dusty little bookstore outside Denver).
But see, guys like that don’t get assassinated. Only Death itself can kill them. Love ’em or hate ’em. Not their karma. They know it too. Like Colonel Kilgore in Apocalypse Now. “He knew he was going to come through this thing without a scratch.” There’s no explaining it.
Westlake got that Taylor bio book contract because they thought she was going to die?
That’s why he wrote the only bio of her that ends JUST BEFORE she met Richard Burton?
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That Heckelmann story is from Block’s afterward of Killing Castro, as published in the on-line edition available at my local library. Block has been doing that with a lot of his early work: writing interesting afterwards for the electronic versions, and crediting Hard Case Crime for bringing the stories back to life.
The historical circumstances around the idea for the book is more interesting than the story itself, and Block’s “biography of Castro” parts end up being the highlight. Nonetheless, he did produce a readable page-turner.
I didn’t like the Tarantino WWII movie since it has no reflection on our understanding of history … at least, I hope not! For me, none of his later films approach his Reservoir Dogs, or the “Butch” story in the middle of Pulp Fiction.
I actually haven’t seen the physical Hard Case Crime copy, so I didn’t really comment on the cover art. FWIW it looks crowded, in a comic-book kind of way. Castro’s picture with a big red X over it probably isn’t the wisest wall decoration in early 1960’s Cuba.
I’m a big fan of Kill Bill, Death Proof, and The Hateful 8 (last new movie I went to see in a theater–I’d have gone just for Super Panavision–and yet most of the movie is set indoors!) Pulp Fiction was the first Tarantino film I went to see. I’m not that big on Reservoir Dogs, for whatever reason. Still have to check out Jackie Brown–maybe after I start reading Elmore Leonard. But Inglorious Bastards just seemed like over budgeted revenge porn, and badly plotted revenge porn at that. In the end, I enjoy his films most for the conversations. I think you have to admit, revenge was always a huge thing with him. It’s not new. He’s just getting more ambitious about it.
I’m not sure he’s really the guy to avenge the evils of slavery and mass genocide. He should be adapting more crime novels. (Hell, I’m surprised he didn’t adapt this one.)
What’s next? A movie where Rose McGowan and Asia Argento brutally slay Harvey Weinstein after cutting their way through a host of Miramax execs armed with katanas? Too soon? (Too late, maybe.)
Block has done a lot of good work in terms of writing down his memories of this era. Important source material for lit scholars–if they ever get around to taking this stuff more seriously.