Killing Castro – Lawrence Block

3 out of 5

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Published under a one-off pseudonym in 1961, Lawrence Block’s Killing Castro posits one take on the various assassination attempts made on the titular Cuban leader, gathering some odds-and-ends characters who are each promised a chunk of change if they can pull off the deed. Block doesn’t dig too deep into the Who and Why of those arranging the deal – I could’ve missed some details, but I felt it was implied to be homegrown within Cuba, and not necessarily government- or mob-sourced – and instead has the reader spending chapters getting to know, to a degree, each of the would-be assassins. It’s an interesting approach, as the first few pages suggest we’re going to be focusing on a man named Turner, who’s none too pleasant at first blush, offing his girlfriend when she’s caught in flagrante with another man (and offing the man as well), and thus taking the job as a way of getting the cash to duck the law and set himself up somewhere new. He glances around the room where the job’s details are told and notes the rest of our cast: a hitman (Garrison), a nerd (Fenton), a kid (Hines), and a heavy (Garth); it’s easy enough to see the pulp template kicking in – double-crosses; our tuff guy narrator – albeit cast through a grounded lens with the Castro angle.

But then the second chapter starts: and it’s a high-level history of Castro, told omnisciently. These reviews occur every chapter thereafter, and they’re factual, taking us through Castro’s rise in popularity with the people, up through his revolution and the souring of relations with America, and then installing himself as a despot just as brutal as the ones that came before. Block’s attitude in these tellings is fair, but the slant is clear: Castro was continuing a vicious cycle.

And then the third chapter isn’t from Turner’s point of view anymore, and here, the book breaks with pulp conventions. We step into each assassins shoes – paired up, except for Garrison, and making their way to Cuba – and learn about their motivations. Some of these characters prove especially simple-minded, like Garth, and so don’t get too many pages dedicated to them, but then some – like Turner – offer up hidden depth that make them quite fascinating. And through their thoughts, and those they interact with, we get further points of view on Castro, and everyone’s motivations (and dedication) starts to shift.

There’s still pulpy action and sex, but Block is skilled at balancing this stuff so it doesn’t feel indulgent, or necessarily out of place. However, Killing Castro never quite gets into full swing; it feels more like an experiment, trying to blend commentary with genre, and there’s the anticlimactic nature of how it’s tied to reality, drawing into question where the story can go. It’s ultimately fiction, but that doesn’t really matter, because Block’s doesn’t push us too far down that road, either. This means some characters get the short straw, story-wise – not just Garth, but Garrison, who has an all-too predictable storyline – while others’ arcs, like Hines’ and Turner’s, feel somewhat dropped in the last chapter or so.

It’s definitely a unique blend of things, and even though that blending maybe isn’t successful, Block is such a solid writer that his pacing and characterization carries it well.