By Chuck Leddy
In his 11th book, "Fidel's Last Days," local author Roland Merullo has penned a fast-paced and highly satisfying spy thriller about a conspiracy to assassinate Cuban president Fidel Castro. Merullo seamlessly switches the action from Miami, where a secret organization of Cuban expatriates is plotting to kill Castro, to Havana, where we see Castro's dictatorship in action and watch an internal assassination plot develop among Castro's own advisers. These two plots (and the separate narrative strains) come together at book's end in a dramatic climax that may turn out to be anti-climactic after all.
Merullo has created a number of strong, well-developed characters, including Cuban-born Carolina Perez, a former CIA agent who now works for a secret anti-Castro organization; Carlos Gutierrez, Cuba's minister of health who has become disillusioned with Castro's leadership and decides to kill him; and Castro himself, a suspicious, egomaniacal strongman who rightfully sees potential betrayal all around him (of Castro, Merullo writes, "Any tiny deviation from the posture of adoration was a personal insult"). Merullo has mastered and incorporated into his solid narrative structure the conventions of the spy thriller in order to build tension, create mystery, and move the story forward at an impressively breakneck pace.
The book's most memorable character, a cross between Hannibal Lecter and Vlad the Impaler, is the head of Cuba's vicious secret police, Felix Olochon. Olochon had built his blood-soaked career as the official torturer and executioner of Castro's Orwellian police state. "There was nothing [he] would not do, nothing," writes Merullo, "He was not bound by the thinnest filament of moral compunction." The scenes between Olochon and the plotter Gutierrez, as Olochon attempts to uncover the assassination plot and Gutierrez tries to hide it, are mesmerizing.
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