Dancing to “Almendra”

Written by Mayra Montero (trans. Edith Grossman)
Review by Richard Dery

To young journalist Joaquin Porrata, an assignment writing about a dead hippopotamus seems like another disappointment in a career full of them. Soon, however, he finds a link between the hippo’s death and the murder of Umberto Anastasia, infamous operator of Murder Incorporated. Porrata’s investigations uncover a mob war brewing over control of Havana’s casinos, and he soon finds himself facing an array of ruthless thugs willing to do anything to keep him silent.

Although set in the drama-drenched world of 1957 Havana, Dancing to “Almendra” fails to grip the reader, centering as it does on a weak primary character. Famous figures abound, but their snapshot appearances offer little insight into their characters, and few play an active role in the story. Further, though the author drops the names of famous clubs and songs from the era, one gets little sense of the atmosphere that made 1957 Havana a city of legend. Enthusiasts for stories set in the 1950s will find some delights here, particularly in the character of Bulgado and his fascination with the actor George Raft, but the story ultimately is too lacking in tension.