Stephen Hunter


(Reviewed by Cindy Lynn Speer OCT 5, 2003)

Havana by Stephen Hunter

In 1953 Havana, Cuba is rife with intrigue. The Russians have found a perfect figurehead in a young man named Castro, while others connected to the American government seek to kill him. Players are put into to protect Castro, one to kill him...Earl Swagger is the latter, he just doesn't know it yet. All he knows is he's stuck in Havana as a body guard to Arkansas Congressman Harry Etheredge. Havana is being pulled in three directions...the Russians, who want to turn it into a communist country and claim its riches for their own, the Americans who want to keep their alliance with the Cuban government and continue the rich trade in sugars, fruits and rum that make companies such as Domino happily affluent, and the non-Chicago branches of the mafia, who think of this as their Las Vegas, their surety that the Chicago boys will never be as important as the people who hold Cuba.

HRead excerptunter's fans will know Earl Swagger from at least two other books, Hot Springs, which is referred to, and Pale Horse Coming, which was reviewed for this site. He's as tough as they come, sensible, battle hard, with a preternatural sense of when someone is looking at him. He's one of those solid people...a solider who fought bravely in WWII, a beloved husband and father...the ultimate hero. Through the book we contrast this man of iron with the soft, rotten people around him, and I wonder, is the point of Earl in this book one of contrast, to make the political satire more pointed, or is it a question to the readers, forcing us to examine the allure of this near-stereotypical type of two-fisted hero? This is also, perhaps, unfair...Earl is not all brawn and no brains, all wind-up solider with no emotions, no conscious. If you put me in a room with a bunch of characters, and informed me that I was going to go into the jungle and I had to pick one man to have my back, I'd probably pick Earl. I've used the word solid before, and I use it's exactly right.

This is the world that Earl soon finds himself in: a place that is incredibly sultry, filled with politicos hawking their wares, with people rich and happy and wanting to keep the status quo, with people poor and miserable and wanting revolution. Sugar is made into rum, impoverished women are made into prostitutes. Earl, who himself isn't a prude, is forced to accompany Boss Harry, who seems more determined to get drunk and bedded than to conduct the "fact finding mission" he's supposedly on. It's really a heck of a job to put a man like Earl on...but then, we know that's not the real reason why he's here.

The idea of Havana in this time period is an exciting one, and makes for a really fabulous setting...if you know a little history, you know that it's a time that seems to almost be holding its breath, because something is building, something will eventually explode. You can liken her to a very beautiful woman, over lush in her exoticness. Casinos and gambling joints glisten on her body like jewels, and her suitors, people like United Fruit, Domino Sugar, and Bicardi use her most cruelly, rubbing elbows with porn makers and mobsters taking advantage of a society made permissive by desperation. It is a time of great turmoil under the surface, for her people are willing to listen to young men like Castro, who are fervent in their speeches, charismatic with the vision of what can be. Secret police give shadows to her personality, introducing us to people such as the cruel Ojos Bellos, who gained his name, not from the fact that he had beautiful eyes, but from the fact that he was fond of creating the most exquisite pain by torturing his prisoners by applying a scalpel to this most sensitive spot. Everyone is frightened, everyone is jockeying for some position of power.

Havana, in 1953, draws corruption like flies.

Hunter enjoys bringing a bit of political satire to the mix. The way the politicians plot, the way they act, borders on the hilarious. I especially loved one scene where Boss Harry and his assistant are pinned down by gunfire, and how they turn so easily against each other. We often see scenes where the vapid good will of the politician in Earl's care often dissolves into something spoiled and stupid, his preoccupation with getting certain sexual favors and his assurance that no one thinks any the less of him for his manly foibles is as disgusting as it is frighteningly realistic.

One of the interesting things in this is that you're set up by the jacket copy, even by my descriptions of this book, to dislike the Russian sent to protect Castro. His name is Speshnev, and he's meant to groom and bring along Castro, whose nickname is Greaseball because of his lack of washing. But, you never get a chance to dislike's hard to feel anything but bad for a man who starts out the book at a Gulag, grateful to have won a cockroach at a card that he happily eats. His gratitude for the smallest things and his odd sense of humor make him impossible not to like.

In fact, there are many characters, both real and imagined, that are rather interesting. They blend well together, so that you can hardly notice the difference between what is real and what is not, even a quick bar fight with none other than Ernest Hemingway feels like it belongs.

It's a fairly strong book, solid in its adventure and political satire, it is a perfect visit to Havana before Castro's regime took over.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 51 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Havana at

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"Pale Horse Coming"

(Reviewed by Cindy Lynn Speer SEP 30, 2002)

He was dragged out. There were three deputies, husky boys, used to using muscle against flesh, who shoved him along, their lights beaming in his face, blinding him. The handcuffs enraged him. He had never been handcuffed in his life.

"What in God's name do you think you're doing! I am an attorney-at-law, for God's sake, you have no right to ---"

Another blow lit up his other arm and he stumbled to the earth in the agony of it.

"That ought to shut him up," said the man on horseback, who was in command. "Load him in the meat wagon and let's go."

Pale Horse Coming by Stephen Hunter

No one with any sense would travel to Thebes Mississippi, but Sam Vincent allows himself to be talked into it by a Chicago lawyer. Lincoln Tilson has inherited a decent sum of money from a former employer, and the lawyer, Trugood, is having a hard time tracking him down. So he wants Sam Vincent to go to Tilson's last known location to see what he can discover. Vincent is less than thrilled...years ago the one road to Thebes was washed out, and never repaired. The only way is by river, and people are loath to take anyone there. Thebes is the home of a prison farm, a place of such infamy that it would be better to be called Hades than Thebes, and is a place from where no one returns. Vincent wants the money. Although he really suspects that the place will be only a little rough, a little backwards because of it's isolation and poverty, he tells his best friend Earl Swagger where he's going, and asks that, if he should be gone for more than a week, to come and get him.

LRead excerptucky thing. Thebes is much worse than anyone could have imagined. The black population of the town are beaten and abused by the white, horse riding deputies. The women are made into prostitutes and everyone is in debt to The Store. When he wants to leave, his boat is gone. He stays over night with an older woman, the only person who is willing to talk to him, but the Sheriff and his men come after him, beat him severely, and arrest him. (This scene is part of the excerpt above.) The next day they tell him to get out and never come back, or the next time he won't be so lucky. His boat is returned and he gets in, but the trip is cut short. Vincent sees dead bodies floating in the river, and his sense of goodness and justice, --- for Sam is a real, out and out law-and-order kind of guy --- is outraged to the point where he decides to turn back, and see if he can get a party of people together to go after the dead bodies. (At this point, you're probably thinking What? in very loud letters.) And yes, as you may have guessed, he is arrested again. Earl Swagger comes down, as promised, and arranges Sam's escape. By the end of the chase, Earl ends up sacrificing his own freedom to save Vincent's... he tells him do not tell the authorities where he is, just find out as much as he can about Thebes.

Earl Swagger is very strong. He is tortured and beaten by these men, who are convinced that he's up to much more than a simple rescue mission, and they try all sorts of ways to break him. The worst thing they do is to sentence him to the prison, a place where no white man has been an inmate before. He handles the situations he finds himself in with a sheer force of will that is completely awe-inspiring. He gets beat up quite a bit, and while I suppose it is integral to what Hunter is trying to accomplish, it gets a best to put this? You wince and go, "Not again!" an awful lot. This is especially true since Earl is so likable, because who wants to see someone you like, someone who is admirable, get hurt? In some ways, I think these scenes aren't just characterization and plot forwarding devices, I think that Hunter is drawing some parallels that are worth looking at. It brings out another thread of theme, about endurance. Not just Earl's implacable strength in the face of a great deal of pain, but the endurance of the women who are beaten and abused, of the town that is nearly completely dried out, but somehow manages to hold on, and about the prisoners, who dream alternatively of escape and the horrors of the screaming house. It segues into the more common theme of man's cruelty to man, blending with it to make this a much stronger novel.

While this is not a sequel to Hot Springs, it does have some of the same characters. I think anyone who enjoyed that book will also find much to enjoy in this one. It has good pacing, and an ending that is satisfying and, despite the dark overtones of the book, really fun.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 37 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Pale Horse Coming at

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Bibliography: (with links to

Bob Lee Swagger Series (Son)

Earl Swagger Series (Father)



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Book Marks:


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About the Author:

Stephen HunterStephen Hunter is a newspaper movie critic working for the Baltimore Sun from 1971-1996 and currently writes for the Washington Post. He won the prestigious American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) 1998 Distinguished Writing Award in the criticism category and has been nominated twice for the Pulitzer Prize (1995 and 1996) for his film criticism and won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for "his authoritative film criticism that is both intellectually rewarding a pleasure to read."

Hunter lives in Baltimore, MD, where he lives with his fiance who is also a journalist with the Baltimore Sun. He has two college age children. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014