Ben Tyler starts robbing banks to get back some money owed him and just keeps going because It’s so easy. Yuma Prison isn’t so easy, and when Tyler gets out he finds the offer from Charlie Burke intriguing. They can round up some horses and sell them in Cuba for good money. Tyler does some figuring in his head, calculating passage, feed, and sales price and understands that Charley is really running guns to Cubans rebelling against the Spanish. Burke admits it, but Tyler sees it as an okay way to get some cash.
Thus begins Cuba Libre Elmore Leonard’s exciting excursion into the Spanish-American War, and the only novel I know of that’s named after a cocktail. Or was the cocktail named after a battle cry? Either way it’s a tasty and intoxicating experience.
The thing is, right after they get those horses to Cuba, the battleship Maine explodes in Havana harbor, and so does the balance of power and money all over the island. Tyler and Burke find a buyer for the horses, but he pays only half what they ask, and doesn’t even come across with that. Moreover, the authorities sniff out the gun-running plot. Though they have no proof at first, the police are inclined to imprison first and look for proof later.
While they wait for money and decisions from the authorities, Tyler refuses a challenge to a duel over a perceived insult that took place during negotiations over the horses. Turns out he might as well have accepted because the guy pulls a gun anyhow. Now he’s killed a prominent Cuban, justified or not, and what with this and that, he and Charlie end up in a very nasty hoosegow. They are there with a Marine who survived the Maine who is in prison pretty much just because he might be a spy or might have useful information. And all of them are subject to torture over the matter of the guns and possible spying for America, which everyone pretty much knows will be in the war any minute.
Key to the action are two characters who begin as outlyers: Amelia, and Neely. She, the concubine of the sugar plantation owner who “purchased” the horses, he a correspondent for the Chicago Tribune who sees everything as a story. Neely acts as a sort of like a Greek Chorus, always describing the action, but never in it. He’s a blast for a writer because he’s always trying to think of just the right word and phrasing to describe a situation. Even the most agonizing and bloody events become subjects for literary rendering rather than emotional involvement.
Anyhow, Amelia becomes enamored of Tyler, decides she wants to do something significant with her life, and pretends to be kidnapped so that her lover will send money, which she plans to turn over to the rebels. However, when $40,000 is involved (real money in 1898), even the motives of the purest rebel can get distorted, and we’re now in Elmore country, where love and loyalty and avarice whirl around as in a kaleidoscope. Dazzling.
In the middle of all this personal conflict, Leonard also manages, largely through Neely, to deliver a scathing indictment (how’s that for cliche journalism?) of America’s involvement in the most trumped up filibuster since the Mexican-American war 50 years earlier and Vietnam 65 years later. He even gets in a few digs at TR and his San Juan hill exploits–or lack thereof.
This is one fine historical novel, different from other Leonards in that it’s way over his legendary 300-page limit and carefully and specifically researched (dollar values vis-a-vis the 1898 peseta, per head horse prices, gun calibers and explosive poundage, etc.) in a way that is mostly unnecessary in his other crime novels. As a historical novelist myself as well as a Leonard devotee, I ate it up and am sorry only that it took me sooooo long to get to it.