Monday, February 02, 2009

Pulp Fiction: Killing Castro

Killing Castro
By Lawrence Block
Cover art by Sharif Tarabay
Hard Case Crime

Killing Fidel Castro is a dangerous business. Would it be worth twenty grand in 1961 dollars? Heck, I know plenty of people who would be willing to do it for free, if there was a viable plan in place. Of course, that part about the feasible plan has been the tricky part, both in real life and in Lawrence Block’s pseudonymous hard-boiled 1961 paperback novel, Killing Castro, recently reprinted under the author’s actual name for the Hard Case Crime retro-pulp imprint.

Hard Case has a visible affection for the look of classic pulp, particularly the seductive femme fatale, preferably clad (or semi-clad) in something tight and low cut. Presumably, Sharif Tarabay’s appropriate cover depicts Maria, an anti-Castro freedom fighter who draws the unwelcome attention of Matt Garth, one of five American mercenaries sent to fulfill the title’s mission. Recruited with the brutish Garth are a stone cold bounty-hunter, a drifter with a murder wrap hanging over his head, a college student looking to avenge his brother, and the sharpest drawn character of Block's Cuban Rat Pack, Earl Fenton, a former bank teller with terminal lung cancer looking to give meaning to his impending death.

Of course, for a book like Killing Castro, characterization is a secondary concern, if it factors at all. The sex and violence are the real priority and there are plenty of both here. However, Block throws in a few interesting twists, pairing the Garth, easily the most despicable of the five prospective assassins, with Fenton, perhaps his most sympathetic character. As one of the anti-Castro guerillas confesses to the nebbish but driven American:

“When I first met you, I thought you were less of a man than you are. I mean that I did not know you would be good at the fighting. I thought you were a quiet man, you know?” (p. 136)

Weighing in at just over 200 pages, Killing Castro does not have the time for intricate plotting, but the conclusion truthfully comes as a tad bit of a surprise. His historical interludes explaining Castro’s rise to power and descent into dictatorship do not hold up as well, essentially blaming the precedent set by the Batista regime for the bearded one’s “revolutionary justice” meted out with firing squads, sans trials.

Even in 1961, Block was a professional grade writer, who could clearly produce entertaining pulp on demand. Unquestionably a man’s book, Killing Castro remains a quick, lurid read, living up to the expectations set by its cover.