John Lantigua is the author of a Miami-based crime series featuring PI Willie Cuesta. Praised by Carl Hiaasen as “fresh” and “authentic,” the Edgar Award-nominated novels of John Lantigua present a sizzling slice of Cuban-American life. The 1999 Player’s Vendetta introduces readers to Cuesta’s and Miami’s Little Havana, and the action is carried forward in The Ultimate Havana and The Lady from Buenos Aires.
In his 2011 series addition, On Hallowed Ground, Lantigua offers ” fast-paced action … well matched by concise prose, making this a treat for Elmore Leonard devotees,” according to Publishers Weekly. Similarly, Booklist gave the novel a starred review, calling it a “real find for crime-fiction fans.”
Lantigua, formerly a reporter for the Washington Post and the Miami Herald (where he shared a Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism), is currently a journalist with the Palm Beach Post. He is also the author of the 1989 thriller, Heat Lightning, set in San Francisco. The New York Times noted of this debut novel: “Keeps detective fans eager for the next page. . . Welcome to the world of vendetta, intrigue, and double-cross.” Lantigua also penned the 1990 Burn Season, dubbed a “darkly gripping read” by Publishers Weekly, and Twister, set in Texas.
John, it’s great to have you on Scene of the Crime. Though you’ve set your novels from Central America to California and Florida, perhaps we can focus on the Willie Cuesta books and Miami. What’s your connection to Florida?
My father was born in Cuba. He came to the U.S. in 1927 and became a U.S. citizen in time to be drafted into the Air Force near the beginning of World War II. He spent more than two years in Europe during the war. Not long after he came back, I was born. My father went many years without returning to Cuba, but in 1955, when I was seven years old, he loaded me and my mother into our old Dodge, and drove to Key West, where, in those days, you could take the daily ferry ninety miles to Cuba. We arrived in Key West after the ferry had already left for the day and we spent the day at the beach waiting for the next day’s departure. I had been to the beach in New Jersey where we lived, but I had never seen water the color of the sea off Key West. It was different shades of aquamarine and I remember putting on my goggles and swimming underwater. It was as if I were swimming through a beautiful jewel. I never forgot it. The water off Miami Beach, where I live today, is very close to that color. I lived in many cities and countries after I was seven years old, but I always wanted to live near water that color. Today, I live walking distance to the beach. I run along that beach almost every day.
What things about Make make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
Miami’s geographical location makes it perfect for me. Many of my books focus on refugees from Latin America and the Caribbean. That region passed through civil wars, guerrilla insurgencies, military coups, not to mention economic earthquakes, over the past half century. Many people who could get out alive showed up in Miami, which was the nearest port of call in the U.S. Miami is full of high-spirited survivors, but it is also full of the ghosts of all those former struggles. These are people with really interesting back stories and the ghosts in their lives never rest. Just in the past month I have read in the Miami Herald of ongoing attempts to bring to justice human rights violators from Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, whose crimes were committed many decades ago. Sometimes those same human rights criminals show up here, trying to escape justice. The past and Miami’s flashy, tropical present are always getting entangled. The stories are dramatic. The hunger to see justice done is undying. Miami is where I find my characters and where my detective, Willie Cuesta, finds his clients.
Did you consciously set out to use your location as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?
I think one reason I write about place as much I do is this: I find South Florida very beautiful and since the events I write about are not always beautiful, Willie will often look up and appreciate his surroundings as a respite from those dramatic and sometimes scary stories. He also serves as head of security at a salsa club run by his brother, Tommy, and that allows him to regularly see a slice of life –Miami’s sexy, high energy nightlife– that allows him a break from the mayhem.
Also, because Miami is a refuge, it is always changing, and that always keeps Willie interested. He will look up and realize that most the parking valets he is bumping into come from Venezuela, which means the latest political trouble in Latin America is happening in Venezuela and new refugees from there are filling the entry levels jobs in the Miami economy. It always happens that way. Those same jobs were once filled by Cubans, Nicaraguans, Argentineans, Colombians, depending on what year you are talking about. Willie is using his knowledge of the streets of Miami –what he sees and hears–to reflect on the political moment in Latin America and the Caribbean because Miami really is a mirror of that moment. For example, my second to last novel was The Lady from Buenos Aires, and it dealt with Argentineans in Miami. Much of the novel takes place in a section of Miami Beach that in recent years has changed dramatically and has come to be called “Little Buenos Aires.” Many Argentineans came to Miami because of severe economic problems in their country about a decade ago. But many of my readers, even ones who live in Miami, didn’t know the section of town existed.
How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you?
Every novel I write deals with a different nationality of people living in Miami. The first two Willie Cuesta novels were about the Cuban community –Player’s Vendetta and The Ultimate Havana. The third was about the Argentinean community –The Lady from Buenos Aires –and the fourth dealt with Colombian folks here –On Hallowed Ground. In my books I will take you to where you will find those different peoples. If I’m writing about Cubans I may take you to an aromatic cigar store run by old Cuban cigar experts or to the clinic of a Santero. If you are reading The Lady from Buenos Aires I escort you to a polo match on the edge of the Everglades and in On Hallowed Ground you get a day at the beach where Colombians play a strange game involving gun powder, named tejo. In that sense, location is much more than a backdrop to me. Location often helps me delve personal and cultural histories. These locales are often where my characters connect and where Willie finds out a lot about people.
How does Willie Cuesta interact with his surroundings? Is he a native, a blow-in, a reluctant or enthusiastic inhabitant, cynical about it, a booster? And conversely, how does the setting affect your protagonist?
As a former patrol cop and detective in Miami, Willie feels that few people know the city as well as he does. In real life, I worked as a general assignment reporter for the Miami Herald newspaper when I first arrived here in the early1990s. I wrote about 900 stories in four and half years. I made it my business to get to know lots of parts of the county, including all sorts of ethnic enclaves. When I sat down to write my first Willie Cuesta novel I felt no trepidation. Willie feels totally connected in Miami. It’s his turf.
Has there been any local reaction to your works?
I’ve had people who live in Miami, and know it well, tell me they particularly like the way I write about it. I’ve been told that I write well about the beauty of the place and I’ve been told I write well about the changing face of Miami. It all has to do with that comfort level I discussed in answering previous question. Willie is very sensitive to Miami.
As for your second question: My novel The Ultimate Havana received very good reviews in France. Player’s Vendetta was published in Spanish, but I never saw reviews.
Have you ever made any goofs in depicting your location or time period? Please share–the more humorous the better (we all have).
The only goof I know of was not mine, but was committed by a person who decided to “correct” a mistake I’d made after the galleys left my hands. In the first Willie Cuesta novel, I decorated Willie’s apartment with a poster of a painting by the most famous of the modernist painters from Cuba –Wifredo Lam. (That’s WIFREDO with no L.) Cubans with any knowledge of Cuban art know that Lam spelled his first name in that unusual way. I knew it too, but after the final galleys had left my hands, some “good Samaritan” decided to help me out and inserted an L in Wifredo. We all know that galleys aren’t supposed to be tampered with at that point, or at least not without consulting the author, but it didn’t work that way this time. I assume it was someone at the printer. I brought it up to a friend of mine later and he said, “Yes, I was really surprised that you made a mistake like that given your knowledge of Miami.” Luckily, I had kept the galleys and I showed him that the mistake wasn’t mine. But I took that poster out of Willie’s apartment after that. I’ll never have that problem again.
Of the Willie Cuesta novels, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
Well, there are lots of scenes I remember fondly. There is a scene in On Hallowed Ground where Willie is to drop off a ransom payment at a soccer field at night and ends up in the middle of a crossfire between the people picking up the ransom and those trying to steal it. He suddenly becomes the David Beckham of ransom delivery, as he lugs the ransom out of harm’s way, running the length of the field dodging bullets. Colombians love soccer and I hope they like the scene. There is also a scene in On Hallowed Ground where Willie accompanies the woman he is trying to protect from kidnappers to a ritzy Key Biscayne spa and learns exactly where on their bodies the different nationalities of well-to-do Latin women prefer to get their collagen and botox shots. I must say it was revelatory to me when I was told. There is also a very nice scene in a cigar shop –run by a blind tobacconist—at the very beginning of The Ultimate Havana and there is a scene in Player’s Vendetta about how Willie met his ex-wife—she had left Cuba on a raft and Willie was the first person she saw on U.S. soil as she was delivered by the Coast Guard to Miami Police on the Miami River. Love at first sight. That scene is very Miami. Also in Player’s Vendetta, there is a scene set in a casino run by Seminole Indians, but modeled on the old Cuban casinos and nightclubs of the pre-Castro era. It includes an old Cuban dance extravaganza, ala Busby Berkeley; the men play cane cutters and the ladies play the cane being harvested. That was fun to write. In The Lady from Buenos Aires there are scenes of tango dancing that I recall vividly, especially one of a sultry lady tango teacher. As you can see, a lot of these scenes are set in places that have specific cultural significance to the nationality I’m writing about.
Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?
Ross MacDonald was absolutely great on the history of contemporary California and how both state and national history affected people’s lives. He was also excellent on the clash of classes in California. Eric Ambler –who was the master of the spy story before John LeCarre came along – was very good at taking one person and showing decades of history in a certain place through the personal story of that person. He is a favorite of mine. Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Graham Greene were also influences on me. Garcia Marquez taught me to allow my characters their own idiosyncratic theories of what is going on around them. Greene helped develop my interest in the Third World, which is where lots of my characters come from.
What’s next for Willie Cuesta?
On Hallowed Ground was just published by Arte Publico. Next, Willie Cuesta, and his sidekick, Attorney Alice Arden, are about to begin a case that involves the Venezuelan community in South Florida. Venezuela is famous for its oil, its beauty queens, and, these days, its anti-American president Hugo Chavez. Willie will, I’m sure, get involved, in one way or another, with all of these people and issues, and probably more.
John, thanks much for taking the time to chat with us at Scene of the Crime. Good luck with On Hallowed Ground. It’s part of a great series.
For more information on John Lantigua, visit his homepage.