Crime in Cuba

The tourism industry may not be too fond of the way novelist Elmore Leonard depicts South Florida, but that's what makes some of his books such great reads.

"The contrast is what I liked there, with the old people lined up in front of their hotels with their nose shields on and all of the crime going on just down the beach," Leonard explains from his home just outside of Detroit. "Police had their TV cameras along Collins and Washington [avenues, in Miami Beach] so they could watch whatever was going on. There was the Mariel boatlift of the early Eighties. The Hotel Nemo with its 250 calls to police. There was just so much going on down there that it was a great setting for books."

Leonard's "Florida" books include Maximum Bob, Get Shorty, and Rum Punch, which is the basis for Quentin Tarantino's new film, Jackie Brown. Born in 1925, Leonard has written 34 novels to date, Hombre, LaBrava, and Glitz among them. Since his early days as a writer, Florida has been like a home away from home.

"I've been coming to Florida since 1950," says Leonard, who in the late Sixties bought a place in Pompano Beach. "I got a little motel that my mother ran until sometime in the early Eighties," he explains.

These days he has a house in North Palm Beach, which he will visit this week to promote his new novel, Cuba Libre. The book is set in Havana just prior to the Spanish-American War.

"I take a cowboy from Arizona who, with another older guy that he used to work for, delivers a string of horses to the sugar cane plantation of an American," Leonard explains. "So I get into the situation of Americans making money in Cuba at that time and the war coming along more to protect their interests than to free the Cubans from Spanish rule.

"It's a historical novel, but it's done in my style. So there won't be a heavy emphasis on the dry facts of history, because there's a lot going on in the book. There's a crime in the book."

Originally there wasn't. But when Leonard was about 200 pages into the writing, his friend George Will, the Washington Post columnist, called. "I told him what I was working on, and he said, 'Oh, crime in Cuba.' But it didn't really have a real one, so then I got busy on the plot to lay in my kind of crime -- with a lot of money at stake."

Part of the plot involves clandestine deliveries of arms to Cuban insurgents.

"It was a lot of work, all of the research that was required, but it was fun, too," Leonard says. "I had a good time writing the book, but I always have fun writing the books."

-- John Ferri

KEEP NEW TIMES BROWARD-PALM BEACH FREE... Since we started New Times Broward-Palm Beach, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
John Ferri