"Havana Requiem: a Legal Thriller" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), by Paul Goldstein: Attorney and novelist Paul Goldstein manages the enviable feat of writing a compelling legal thriller without ever putting his characters in the less-than-thrilling venue of a courtroom.
Instead, the action in "Havana Requiem" takes place in Cuba's capital in a plot permeated with dangerous, steamy intrigue. The setting fits for a story that turns on notions of freedom of expression and freedom to dream.
New York lawyer Michael Seeley, the leading character in two previous Goldstein novels, is trying to re-establish his career as a top intellectual property lawyer while putting behind him a failed marriage, a drinking problem and a professional meltdown. When Cuban musician Hector Reynoso seeks his help, Seeley sees an opportunity to regain his self-respect as well as assist some deserving artists.
What Reynoso desires is refreshingly unusual for such a story: the rights to the traditional Cuban music he and other elderly composers wrote before the revolution. Sure, there's money involved -- big money -- but there's also the matter of preserving Cuban culture.
Those millions of dollars in fees have been going somewhere, certainly not to the composers, and suggest that Seeley should take more than a little care when rooting around the legal hurdles facing his clients in the U.S. and in Castro's Cuba. Music has its political dimensions, too, and can undermine authority in the right conditions.
Persuading the aging Cubans to sign on to the effort to get their music back takes Seeley on an almost covert mission to Havana. Trying to perform a simple task puts him at odds with the secret police, ambiguous American officials and a Cuban beauty, Amaryll Cruz, who is as enigmatic as the island nation.
"This is the most subversive music of all," Amaryll warns. "It makes practical people dream."
While Goldstein creates a satisfying legal puzzle, it's his description of a city and citizenry floating through life under Castro that gives "Havana Requiem" its heart and soul.
Douglass K. Daniel is the author of "Tough as Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks" (University of Wisconsin Press).