Cuba Libre

Cuba Libre

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by Elmore Leonard

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He came to Cuba to make a killing.

She came to find a purpose.

And on an island overrun with passion and violence, they each found something to live for.

On a hot night in Havana Harbor, U.S. marines sleep on the deck of the USS Maine as the sound of rumba music drifts across the water. Then, in a flash, the Maine is blown to pieces. Now a bloody

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He came to Cuba to make a killing.

She came to find a purpose.

And on an island overrun with passion and violence, they each found something to live for.

On a hot night in Havana Harbor, U.S. marines sleep on the deck of the USS Maine as the sound of rumba music drifts across the water. Then, in a flash, the Maine is blown to pieces. Now a bloody carnaval of war, nations, and schemers is exploding on the dusty, sugar-rich island some dared call—Cuba Libre.

Welcome to Cuba, 1898—where the insurrectos are in the hills, the rich are partying in Havana, and Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders are about to come ashore. Into the melee an American cowboy arrives with a scheme to sell horses and run guns, earning himself a date with a firing squad—until a rich man's mistress saves his skin. Now Amelia Brown and Ben Tyler are riding for their lives, fighting side by side—for revenge, for love, and honor.

This rip-roaring jaunt into history sizzles with the passion of lovers, the violence of nations, and the wild courage of freedom fighters crying out to their firing squads: "Viva Cuba Libre!"

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Editorial Reviews

The Detroit News
“An absolute master.”
The New York Times Book Review
“The greatest crime writer of our time, perhaps ever!”
The Barnes & Noble Review
Set on the eve of the Spanish-American War, this electrifying novel takes off like a shot. A spellbinding journey into the heart and soul of the Cuban revolution of a hundred years ago, Cuba Libre is an explosive mix of high adventure, history brought to life, and a honey of a love story — all with the dead-on dialogue and unforgettable characters that mark Elmore Leonard as an American original.

Just three days after the sinking of the battleship Maine in Havana harbor, Ben Tyler arrives with a string of horses to sell — cover for a boatload of guns he's running to Cuban insurgents, risking a firing squad if he's caught. The cowboy's first day ashore sets the pace for a wild ride to come. He sells the horses to an American planter, Roland Boudreaux, who's making a killing in Cuba, falls in love with the man's sparkly New Orleans-born mistress, Amelia, makes an enemy of a terrorizing Guardia Civil officer named Tavalera, and makes a friend of a mysterious old Cuban. When Tyler is forced into a gunfight and thrown in prison, Tavalera is determined to nail him as a spy. America is about to declare war on Spain, and if Tyler doesn't manage to get out very soon, he's a dead man.

How his escape comes about, with surprising help, is the high point from which the plot takes off on a train ride across Cuba, with Tyler and Amelia looking for more than love — a lot more: the chance to snatch a bundle of Boudreaux's cash, if they can pull it off. But who can you trust?

Everyone's a schemer in this one.

Breaking new ground for Leonard, thisrip-roaringjaunt into history is packed with all the twists, turns, sly plot, and wicked wit his fans have come to expect of a writer who has redefined the art of the novel.

New York Times Book Review
The greatest crime writer of our time, perhaps ever!
Detroit News
An absolute master.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A departure from Leonard's usual Miami-Detroit axis, a return to his western-writing roots and possibly his most ambitious book yet, this is a dazzling play on and explication of the 1898 Spanish-American War. Arizona horse dealer (and ex-con bank robber) Ben Tyler joins his old boss, Charlie Burke, in a plan to sell horses (and, secretly, guns) in Cuba. When Tyler, in self-defense, kills a hotheaded Spanish officer, he and Charlie are flung into a hellish prison at the mercy of Guardia Civil Major Tavalera, easily one of Leonard's nastiest villains. Then the USS Maine blows up in Havana's harbor and the U.S. and Spain spin toward war, with Cuban insurrectos goading on the inevitable violence. Tyler becomes involved with an assortment of colorful characters: old mulatto Cuban patriot Victor Fuentes; American sugar planter Roland Boundreaux and his young mistress, Amelia Brown; Virgil Webster, a boyish Marine survivor of the Maine; Chicago newsman Neely Tucker (who occasionally serves as the book's chorus); Havana police detective Rudi Calvo; and rebel guerrilla chief Islero, who's Victor's half-brother. The plot gallops along from Havana to Natanzas to the jungle to Guantanamo Bay. Motivations are of course very tangled. In brilliantly laconic prose and expert flashbacks, Leonard depicts Spain's harsh suppression of Cubans (especially blacks), the Maine explosion, ambushes, chases, two shootings in Havana's Hotel Ingeletterra bar and the attack on Guantanamo Bay. Ben and Amelia's affair is sweet, funny and believable; and, if Ben's final affection for Cuba seems a bit strained, it also manages to generate another drop-dead Leonard last line. Leonard flashes less of his throwaway humor here than usual, but he clearly has great sympathy for almost all his characters—even Tavalera has real style—and readers will, too. This is the kind of book they will race through and then want to immediately re-read, slowly.
Library Journal
The prolific Leonard (Out of Sight) has written genre Westerns and a long string of successful crime thrillers that transcended genre writing; now, he pulls off a wonderful historical novel, due to be published at the centenary of the onset of the Spanish-American War. Ben Tyler, a cowboy cum bank robber, is recruited by an old partner to assist in a scheme to run guns to insurgent Cubans, under cover of horse trading. When they arrive, they find the U.S.S. Maine's wreckage in the harbor at Havana, and Tyler his partner must cope with a rapidly developing chain of events. Leonard characteristically dispenses with long descriptive passages, but his 1898 Cuba is richly evoked via dialog and action, and the irony of the coming war between the two great powers for custody of this small island is lost neither upon the author nor his characters. Happy to have read such a fine story, one comes away curious to know more about the period and its events.
—David Dodd, Santa Cruz Cty. Lib. Sys., California
School Library Journal
This book has something to interest almost everyone. Set against the rich and compelling backdrop of Cuba during its struggle for independence, the story includes bank robbery, cattle rustling, love, suspense, and action-packed adventure. Realistic, memorable characters come to life in the scheming twists and turns of a complex plot. Leonard writes in an easy-to-follow style; his bad guys are truly BAD, and readers find themselves rooting for the hero and heroine as they hide, the Spanish Civil guards in hot pursuit. The plot is larded with history, beginning with the sinking of the USS Maine in the harbor of Havana, and ending with Roosevelt and his Rough Riders's charge up San Juan Hill. A rare glimpse of the Spanish-American War and the fight for Cuban independence.
—Anita Short, W. T. Woodson High School, Fairfax, Va.
Charles Waring
[N]ot so much a stylistic departure as a return to old pastures for Elmore Leonard....[T]his new novel sees him coming full-circle, but now bringing with him an experience and consummate assurance that was lacking in his earliest work....Like a vintage wine, Elmore Leonard just seems to get better with time.

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Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
4.18(w) x 6.75(h) x 1.08(d)

Read an Excerpt

Tyler arrived with the horses February eighteenth, three days after the battleship Maine blew up in Havana harbor.  He saw buzzards floating in the sky the way they do but couldn't make out what they were after.  This was off Morro Castle, the cattle boat streaming black smoke as it came through the narrows.

But then pretty soon he saw a ship's mast and a tangle of metal sticking out of the water, gulls resting on it.  One of the Mexican deckhands called to the pilot tug bringing them in, wanting to know what the wreckage was.  The pilot yelled back it was the Maine.

Yeah?  The main what?  Tyler's border Spanish failed to serve, trying to make out voices raised against the wind.  The deckhand told him it was a buque de guerra, a warship.

Earlier that month he had left Sweetmary in the Arizona Territory by rail: loaded thirty-one mares aboard Southern Pacific stock cars and rode them all the way to Galveston on the Gulf of Mexico.  Here he was met by his partner in this deal, Charlie Burke, Tyler's foreman at one time, years ago.  Charlie Burke introduced him to a little Cuban mulatto—"Ben Tyler, Victor Fuentes"—the man appearing to be a good sixty years old, though it was hard to tell, his skin the color of mahogany.

Fuentes inspected the mares, none more than six years old or bigger than fifteen hands, checked each one's conformation and teeth, Fuentes wiping his hands on the pants of his white suit, picked twenty-five out of the bunch, all bays, browns and sorrels, and said he was sure they could sell the rest for the samemoney, one hundred fifty dollars each.  He said Mr.  Boudreaux was going to like these girls and would give them a check for thirty-seven hundred fifty dollars drawn on the Banco de Comercio before they left Havana.  Fuentes said he would expect only five hundred of it for his services.

Tyler said to Charlie Burke, later, the deal sounded different than the way he'd originally explained it.

Charlie Burke said the way you did business in Cuba was the same as it worked in Mexico, everybody getting their cut.  Tyler said, what he meant, he thought they were going directly from here to Matanzas, where Boudreaux's sugar estate was located.  Charlie Burke said he thought so too; but Boudreaux happened to be in Havana this week and next.  It meant they'd take the string off the boat, put the horses in stock pens for the man to look at, reload them and go on to Matanzas.  What Tyler wanted to know, and Charlie Burke didn't have the answer: "Who pays for stopping in Havana?"

That evening Charlie Burke and Mr.  Fuentes left on a Ward Line steamer bound for Havana.

It was late the next day Tyler watched his mares brought aboard the cattle boat, the name Vamoose barely readable on its rusted hull.  Next came bales of hay and some oats, one of the stock handlers saying you didn't want a horse to eat much out at sea.  Tyler stepped aboard with his saddle and gear to mind the animals himself.  That was fine with the stock handlers; they had the cattle to tend.  They said the trip would take five days.

It was back toward the end of December Charlie Burke had wired: FOUND WAY TO GET RICH WITH HORSES.

He came out on the train from East Texas and was waiting for Tyler the first day of the new year, 1898, on the porch of the Congress Hotel in Sweetmary, a town named for a copper mine, LaSalle Street empty going on 10:00 a.m., the mine shut down and the town sleeping off last night.

Charlie Burke came out of the rocking chair to watch Tyler walking his dun mare this way past the Gold Dollar, past I.S.  Weiss Mercantile, past the Maricopa Bank—Charlie Burke watching him looking hard at the bank as he came along.  Tyler brought the dun up to the porch railing and said, "You know what horses are going for in Kansas City?"

"Tell me," Charlie Burke said.

"Twenty-five cents a head."
They hadn't seen each other in almost four years.

Charlie Burke said, "Then we don't want to go to Kansas City, do we?"

He watched Tyler chew on that as he stepped down from the dun and came up on the porch.  They took time now to hug each other, Charlie Burke's mind going back to the boy who'd come out here dying to work for a cattle outfit and ride horses for pay.  Ben Tyler, sixteen years old and done with school, St.  Simeon something or other for Boys, in New Orleans, this one quicker than the farm kids who wandered out from Missouri and Tennessee.  Charlie Burke, foreman of the Circle-Eye at the time, as many as thirty riders under him spring through fall, put the boy to work chasing mustangs and company stock that had quit the bunch, and watched this kid gentle the green ones with a patience you didn't find in most hands.  Watched him trail-boss herds they brought down in Old Mexico and drove to graze.  Watched him quit the big spread after seven years to work for a mustanger named Dana Moon, supplying horses to mine companies and stage lines and remounts to the U.S.  cavalry.  Watched him take over the business after Moon was made Indian agent at White Tanks, a Mimbreno Apache subagency north of town.  The next thing he saw of Ben Tyler was his face on a wanted poster above the notice:


What happened, Tyler's business fell on hard times and he took to robbing banks.  So then the next time Charlie Burke actually saw him was out in the far reaches of the territory at Yuma Prison: convicts and their visitors sitting across from one another at tables placed end to end down the center of the mess hall.  Mothers, wives, sweethearts all wondering how their loved ones would fare in this stone prison known as the Hell Hole on the Bluff; Charlie Burke wondering why, if Tyler had made up his mind to rob banks, he chose the Maricopa branch in Sweetmary, where he was known.

He said on account of it was the closest one.

Charlie Burke said, "I come all the way out here to watch you stare past me at the wall?"

So then Tyler said, all right, because it was where LaSalle Mining did their banking and LaSalle Mining owed him nine hundred dollars.  "Four times I went up the hill to collect," Tyler said in his prison stripes and haircut, looking hard and half starved.  "Try and find anybody in charge can cut a check.  I went to the Maricopa Bank, showed the teller a .44 and withdrew the nine hundred from the mine company's account."

"That's how you do business, huh?"

"Hatch and Hodges owed me twelve hundred the day they shut down their line.  They said don't worry, you'll get your money.  I waited another four months, the same as I did with LaSalle, and drew it out of their bank over in Benson."

"Who else owed you money?"


"But you robbed another bank."

"Yeah, well, once we had the hang of it...I'm kidding.  It wasn't like Red and I got drunk and went out and robbed a bank.  Red worked for Dana Moon before he came with me, had all that experience, so I offered him a share, but he'd only work for wages.  After we did the two banks I paid Red what he had coming and he bought a suit of clothes cost him ten dollars, and wanted to put the rest in the bank.  We're in St.  David at the time.  We go to the bank to open a savings account and the bank refused him.  I asked the manager, was it on account of Red being Warm Springs Apache?  The manager become snotty and one thing led to another...."

"You robbed the bank to teach him manners."

"Red was about to shoot him."

"Speaking of shooting people," Charlie Burke said, prompting his friend the convict.

"We were on the dodge by then," Tyler said, "wanted posters out on us.  To some people that five hundred reward looked like a year's wages.  These fellas I know were horse thieves—they ran my stock more than once—they got after us for the reward, followed our tracks all the way to Nogales and threw down on us in a cantina—smoky place, had a real low ceiling."

"The story going around," Charlie Burke said, "they pulled, Ben Tyler pulled and shot all three of them dead."

"Maybe, though I doubt it.  All the guns going off in there and the smoke, it was hard to tell.  We came back across the border, the deputies were waiting there to run us down."

"Have you learned anything?"

"Always have fresh horses with you."

"You've become a smart aleck, huh?"

"Not around here.  They put you in leg irons."

"What do you need I can get you?"

"Some books, magazines.  Dana Moon sends me the Chicago Times he gets from some fella he knows."

"You don't seem to be doing too bad."

"Considering I live in a cell with five hot-headed morons and bust rocks into gravel all day.  I've started teaching Mr.  Rinning's children how to ride the horsey and they like me.  Mr.  Rinning's the superintendent; he says to me, 'You're no outlaw, you're just stupid—a big educated fella like you robbing banks?'  He says if I'm done being stupid I'll be out as soon as I do three years."

Charlie Burke said to him that day in the Yuma mess hall, "Are you done?"

"I was mad is all, those people owing me money I'd worked hard for.  Yeah, I got it out of my system," Tyler said.  "But you know what?  There ain't nothing to robbing a bank."

He was back at the Circle-Eye riding the winter range, looking for late calves or ones that had dodged the roundup.

Giving each other that hug, Charlie Burke felt the shape of a revolver beneath Tyler's sheepskin hanging open.  Stepping back, he pulled the coat open a little more, enough to see the .44 revolver hanging in a shoulder rig.

"You have somebody mad at you?" Charlie Burke speaking, as usual, through his big mustache and a wad of Mail Pouch.

"You don't ever want to win fame as an outlaw," Tyler said, "unless everybody knows you've done your time.  There're people who save wanted dodgers and keep an eye out.  They see me riding up the street and think, Why, there's five hundred dollars going by.  Next thing I know, I'm trying to explain the situation to these men holding Winchesters on me.  I've been shot at twice out on the graze, long range.  Another time I'm in a line shack, a fella rode right into my camp and pulled on me."

"You shot him?"

"I had to.  Now I got his relatives looking for me.  It's the kind of thing never ends."

"Well," Charlie Burke said, "you should never've robbed those banks."

Tyler said, "Thanks for telling me."

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Meet the Author

Elmore Leonard wrote forty-five novels and nearly as many western and crime short stories across his highly successful career that spanned more than six decades. Some of his bestsellers include Road Dogs, Up in Honey’s Room, The Hot Kid, Mr. Paradise, Tishomingo Blues, and the critically acclaimed collection of short stories Fire in the Hole. Many of his books have been made into movies, including Get Shorty, Out of Sight, and Rum Punch, which became Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie BrownJustified, the hit series from FX, is based on Leonard’s character Raylan Givens, who appears in Riding the Rap, Pronto, Raylan and the short story “Fire in the Hole”. He was a recipient of the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, the Lifetime Achievement Award from PEN USA, and the Grand Master Award of the Mystery Writers of America. He was known to many as the ‘Dickens of Detroit’ and was a long-time resident of the Detroit area.

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Brief Biography

Bloomfield Village, Michigan
Date of Birth:
October 11, 1925
Place of Birth:
New Orleans, Louisiana
B.Ph., University of Detroit, 1950

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Cuba Libre 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 12 reviews.
McCarthy92 More than 1 year ago
This was my first Elmore Leonard western, which will surprise many people because it is set in Cuba, which happens to be my nationality. However, Leonard succeeds in creating a fast, fun, and action-packed set in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. As with all of hi novels, Cuba Libre is filled with great characters, dialogue, action, and back-stabbing. I have read a total of five Leonard novels, all in the year 2011 so far, and Cuba Libre is definitely towards the top.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
i enjoyed this story--the sweet salty havana night, palm fronds rustling in the hotel lobby, great adventure story, and a hot love story. excellent characters. but the problem i have is there are too many flashbacks! elmore, how about some forward narrative drive here? in the first chapter alone, we start out entering havana bay, flash back to new years day out west, flash back to a prison, and, within the prison scene, flash back again. i had to read the first chapter a few times just to figure out what was going on, and who was where. at the midpoint of the book, we go with the heroine on a flashback of a killing she witnessed, and it doesn't work. the scene would have worked much better in the present. i wish elmore would set the scenes in the present, and let the story drive itself forward. there is no need for all these flashbacks. it's like he needs to take a beginner's fiction writing course. but, i loved the story, and have read it four times.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Don't even think about getting the audio-cassette version of 'Cuba Libre'. While the book was mediocre, these tapes are another thing altogether. This narration contains the worst New Orlean's accent I have ever heard in my life and the Cuban accent is a rung down from that. It sounds like the voice people use to tell ethnic jokes.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Anyone expecting to learn more about the enigmatic sinking of the USS Maine through 'Cuba Libre' will be sadly disappointed. This book has little to do with the event that triggered America's involvement in Cuba's war of independence from Spain. Instead it serves as wallpaper for another Elmore Leonard saga about criminal losers hunting each other down for bags of money. This is basically 'Get Shorty' with 6-shooters and cross-chest ammo belts.
Guest More than 1 year ago
To me, the strength of Elmore Leonard has always been in his dialogue. He has an ability to capture the venacular that is almost unsurpassed, and his crime novels 'ring' true with an amazing resonance as a consequence. When we hear those cadences and accents, we know the real nature of the characters and their thoughts in a subliminal and subconscious way. Moving this 'crime story' to Cuba during the Spanish American war means that the currency of the dialogue is lost on us. So the book becomes dependent on the plot and characterizations to entertain us. Both areas are a little stronger than usual for Mr. Leonard, but not as strong as they should be. The descriptions of the geographic settings are much better than Mr. Leonard usually does, and that element greatly improves this book. The book's concept is an intriguing one. Take some Americans in Cuba who are directly and indirectly involved in the Spanish-American War, and use that plot complication to develop their relationships and characters. The execution unfortunately falls short of the full potential of the concept. The Americans and Cuban revolutionaries are pretty cynically 'in it for the money' whenever there is any to be made. Their sense of honor is most seriously engaged when they are not being treated fairly in business dealings. Ho hum! The book's action begins with the American battleship, Maine, recently sunk in Havana's harbor. Two Americans have arrived ostensibly to sell some horses and cattle, but really to smuggle in weapons for the Cuban revolutionaries who oppose the Spanish. Things start to go wrong when the Spanish offend one of the Americans, leading to a shooting. Matters get worse when the horse buyer reneges on his offer of full payment. Following the shooting, the two Americans find themselves in prison while the Spanish try to find the weapons that were smuggled in. Things look bleak, and they get bleaker. Along the way, Ben Tyler finds that a fellow prisoner is a Marine from the Maine who is wrongfully imprisoned by the Spanish as well. With the help of the revolutionaries, Tyler finds himself able to pursue his opportunities to find love and a fortune in Cuba. The second half of the book involves a very detailed scam in which the double crosses pile on top of each other quite rapidly in classic Leonard style. The Tyler character parallels that of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. You learn what he is about by how he handles his trials. A man of great perseverance, his weakness is striking to take what he feels to be his by right . . . even when that doesn't make much sense. As a result, he finds himself getting into unnecesary and dangerous trouble. But on occasion, his ability to strike like a rattlesnake enables him to serve himself and others well. He certainly is a good man to have as your friend, and a bad man to have as your enemy. If you are feeling lonely for a western-style novel, this one may fit the bill. If you have read relatively few, I suggest that you read Owen Wister's, The Virginian, instead. After you finish enjoying this novel, I suggest that you think about how you respond to challenges to your honor a
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have been kind of surprised by the lukewarm response this book has received. I loved it! The characters, the adventure, even the history lesson. In Leonard's return to the western, readers are treated to a truly romantic vision.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
She stares in his eyes. The asks innocently arent you going to finish?