Harbor of Spies|
A Novel of Historic Havana
Lyons Press, 2018, HC, 320 pp, $24.95
Harbor of Spies is a multi-layered novel of the civil war and Cuba's interaction helping the southern cause. Set in 1863, our protagonist Captain Everett Townsend finds himself in trouble in Havana. He is forced to help an unscrupulous merchant by becoming a blockade runner, bringing guns and cannons to the southern states and coming back with valuable cotton.
Townsend is originally from Maryland, and his parents had helped with the Underground Railroad. To complicate matters more, Townsend's mother was born and raised in Cuba. This all leads to a moral conundrum for Everett. At 19 years old, this is as much a coming of age story as it is a spy tale and sea adventure.
The backdrop of Havana is so well described as to be a breathing character of the novel. Robin Lloyd's vivid account of the sights and smells, from the fishy docks to the hand rolled cigars, the masquerade ball, the sun and heat is all felt. To me, the writing is reminiscent of Patrick O'Brian. As Lloyd illustrates Havana, he also dives into Townsend's internal struggle and thought processes, reminding me of Captain Aubrey, in his intelligence and at times blinkered viewpoint. Everett is a brilliant Captain, evading the blockades with subterfuge and finesse, but somewhat immature understandably and charmingly so.
Having fished an English man from shark infested waters, Townsend finds himself an unwilling accomplice in the investigation of an eight year old murder. Because of his fluency in Spanish and connection with the blockade runners he is asked to be a spy for the union. Everett doesn't want to be a part of any of this. Unfortunately for him his father is on his conscience. How to explain his helping the confederates? Fortunately for him he meets a young woman with a strong moral compass to help him through. It isn't until he actually meets his grandmother, however, that he becomes determined to help the union. Visiting her sugar plantation and witnessing the cruelty of slavery first hand releases him from any quandary and he finally feels free to do what he knew all along is right.
Along with the marked tension of the politics and spying, Lloyd describes well the warm relationship between Townsend and his shipmates. Everett is especially close to Hendricks, a free black man from the Bahamas. Townsend and Hendricks have such a rapport that they need not even talk at times to express what needs to be done on their ship. This and the detail of the steamships, square-riggers and other ships used in this era lend to the salty realism of the novel.
Reading the afterword I was not surprised that much of this book is based in historical facts. I was delighted to read that Lloyd had actually been to Havana as a news correspondent in the 1980's and 90's. The research is so well done it is evident that Lloyd enjoyed writing this book as much as I enjoyed reading it.