REVIEW: The Beggar's Opera

The Beggar's Opera by Peggy Blair
Pintail (352 pages)
February 26, 2013

Rating:  9 (Excellent!)

When Canadian police detective Mike Ellis takes his wife Hillary to Old Havana for Christmas, he hopes the trip will repair both his damaged psyche and their failing marriage. Mike would have been better off staying home for the holidays, though, for not only does Hillary leave him (and Cuba) on Christmas Eve, but on Christmas Day, Mike is taken into custody by the Cuban police for a heinous crime he didn’t commit. Or, at least, he doesn’t remember committing it…

Cuban law dictates the police have three days from the time of arrest to indict a suspect or they must let him go. Inspector Ricardo Ramirez, head of the Havana Major Crimes Unit, is determined to make a timely case against Mike lest he be freed and flee the island. Mike is positive he’s innocent, but unless he can prove it, he’ll be transferred to prison where he’ll either be killed in his cell or die in front of a firing squad (whichever comes first). 

The clock is ticking. What really happened in Old Havana on Christmas Eve? Does Inspector Ramirez actually care? Will Mike Ellis live long enough to find out? A lot can happen in three days’ time…  

Equal parts mainstream thriller and David-Lynchian fever dream, The Beggar’s Opera by Peggy Blair is a beautifully written, quickly paced, cleverly crafted novel that is singularly unlike anything else I’ve ever read. Blair’s storytelling style is perhaps best described as teasing. Her characters may be under the gun, but Blair herself suffers from no such affliction, instead opting to slowly, methodically, stingily dole out the pieces of her puzzle in order to create an aura of tension, menace, and dread. The Beggar’s Opera is chock full of challenging subject matter, but to her credit, Blair never shocks without good reason; be it sexual abuse, rape, murder, prostitution, poverty, gender reassignment, corruption, physical deformity, or terminal illness, her button-pushing is always done in service of the plot. To a one, her characters are unique, compelling, and fully fleshed, and Blair does a remarkable job of bringing Cuba to life on the page.  She somehow manages to deliver lessons on history, politics, and culture without making them feel like lectures, and successfully highlights the blatant corruption, shocking brutality, and devastating poverty that plague Cuba without appearing to pass judgment on the island or its people; she neither romanticizes nor vilifies, but instead does her best to paint an honest portrait of the country – warts, beauty marks, and all.

The Beggar’s Opera informs, it entertains, it’ll break your heart and then lift your spirits a dozen times over, and it’ll almost certainly convince you the only way you want to visit Cuba is via the pages of a good book. As someone from the Canadian embassy tells Mike after his arrest, “There’s no point sugar-coating things:  Cuba is what it is. If you’d asked me where to go for a Cuban holiday experience, I would have told you to go to Miami and eat a jerked pork sandwich. I wish people would inform themselves a bit before they come here. It would really make things easier.” Consider me informed, Ms. Blair – thank you, and well done.