Take a trip to Havana’s dark side

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A review by Tim Swanson for The Sacramento Bee.

In the late 1980s, as the Soviet Union was collapsing and the flow of aid to Cuba became a trickle, the island nation entered an era of extreme poverty and isolation euphemistically called “The Special Period in Time of Peace” by Fidel Castro’s government.

While the country struggled to feed its people, a Cuban author named Leonardo Padura began searching for a way to address “the biggest problems of society: corruption, repression, hypocrisy, ideological erosion, opportunism and poverty,” as he later told the New Yorker. To do this, he turned to an unlikely genre: the detective novel.

Largely associated with postwar America, the detective novel had become surprisingly popular in Cuba, at one point representing as much as 40 percent of the books published there. However, the gumshoes in those works mostly were mouthpieces for the Communist government – role models of virtuous behavior.

Padura, a former investigative journalist, set out to create something different. The result was a quartet of books featuring a police lieutenant named Mario Conde, a hard-drinking romantic and “despondent idealist,” as Padura describes him, who has a tenuous hold on his job but nonetheless solves important cases because of an intimate understanding of human frailties, vices and desires.

Now those books have been made into a Spanish-language miniseries titled “Four Seasons in Havana,” now streaming on Netflix. Padura, who still resides in Cuba, co-wrote the screenplays. Like the novels, each installment takes place during a different season and mixes social criticism – of cronyism, or institutional intolerance, for example – with pulp entertainment.

If there is one word to describe the series, it’s atmospheric. Shot on location in Havana – with scenes that include well-known landmarks such as the Hotel Nacional and the Malecón, as well as Soviet-style apartment buildings – the series captures the old city in all of its splendid, lush decay.

Cuban actor Jorge Perugorría brings a rugged sensuality to Conde, who writes fiction on the side, loves J.D. Salinger and Creedence Clearwater Revival and refuses to back down even when his investigations threaten to cast the regime in a less-than-flattering light.

Few series transport viewers to a specific place and time as effectively as this one. For those looking for an easy introduction to Padura’s work and his sui generis detective, this series offers the perfect opportunity.

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