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BOOK REVIEW

A thrilling ride in Castro plot

By Chuck Leddy
Globe Correspondent / January 10, 2009
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In his 11th book, "Fidel's Last Days," local author Roland Merullo has penned a fast-paced and highly satisfying spy thriller about a conspiracy to assassinate Cuban president Fidel Castro. Merullo seamlessly switches the action from Miami, where a secret organization of Cuban expatriates is plotting to kill Castro, to Havana, where we see Castro's dictatorship in action and watch an internal assassination plot develop among Castro's own advisers. These two plots (and the separate narrative strains) come together at book's end in a dramatic climax that may turn out to be anti-climactic after all.

Merullo has created a number of strong, well-developed characters, including Cuban-born Carolina Perez, a former CIA agent who now works for a secret anti-Castro organization; Carlos Gutierrez, Cuba's minister of health who has become disillusioned with Castro's leadership and decides to kill him; and Castro himself, a suspicious, egomaniacal strongman who rightfully sees potential betrayal all around him (of Castro, Merullo writes, "Any tiny deviation from the posture of adoration was a personal insult"). Merullo has mastered and incorporated into his solid narrative structure the conventions of the spy thriller in order to build tension, create mystery, and move the story forward at an impressively breakneck pace.

The book's most memorable character, a cross between Hannibal Lecter and Vlad the Impaler, is the head of Cuba's vicious secret police, Felix Olochon. Olochon had built his blood-soaked career as the official torturer and executioner of Castro's Orwellian police state. "There was nothing [he] would not do, nothing," writes Merullo, "He was not bound by the thinnest filament of moral compunction." The scenes between Olochon and the plotter Gutierrez, as Olochon attempts to uncover the assassination plot and Gutierrez tries to hide it, are mesmerizing.

There are unanswered questions and potential betrayals throughout Merullo's gripping tale of deception. Can Perez trust the secretive organization that she's working for? Has this secret organization actually been infiltrated by Castro's intelligence network? Can Gutierrez deceive the paranoid Olochon and the ever-suspicious Castro? And will the method of killing Castro, having Gutierrez apply a lethal ointment to Castro's skin during a routine medical visit, actually have its expected deadly effect? Merullo leaves the reader in suspense, while constantly pushing the twin narrative strains (one focused in Miami, the other in Havana) together toward a resolution.

A disguised Perez sneaks into Havana and transfers the lethal ointment to the health minister's driver. Now Gutierrez must meet with Castro and apply it. The drama is heightened when a vaguely suspicious Castro agrees to allow Gutierrez to apply the ointment (to help Castro's skin problems), but on one condition: "I want you to take the treatment first," says Castro. "Who knows what demon might have had access to this tube before it came into your possession." The story's gripping conclusion is filled with fast action and dramatic revelation. The plotters find themselves in the merciless Olochon's clutches, but (as with all well-crafted thrillers) the plot soon thickens and the story becomes far more complicated than it appears.

What matters in thrillers is not the ending (which here is left up in the air, perhaps inevitably), but the tension-filled ups and downs of the narrative journey. In "Fidel's Last Days," Roland Merullo takes readers on a fictional thrill ride filled with so much danger and drama that they won't want it to end.

Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester.

FIDEL'S LAST DAYS By Roland Merullo

Shaye Areheart, 268 pp., $23

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