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.
An absolute master.
New York Times Book Review
The greatest crime writer of our time, perhaps ever!
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 characterseven Tavalera has real styleand readers will, too. This is the kind of book they will race through and then want to immediately re-read, slowly.
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.
[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.
The Detroit News
“An absolute master.”
The New York Times Book Review
“The greatest crime writer of our time, perhaps ever!”
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 BankCharlie 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:
$500 REWARD DEAD OR ALIVE
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 thievesthey ran my stock more than oncethey got after us for the reward, followed our tracks all the way to Nogales and threw down on us in a cantinasmoky 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 stupida 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."