Writing Voodoo Eyes
Voodoo Eyes is the third and final Max Mingus book, the end of the line, the full stop.
The central plot is Max Mingus’s search for a former black power activist called Vanetta Brown. She’s the main suspect in the murder of Max’s former boss and mentor, Eldon Burns. Vanetta was the leader and founder of a Miami-based black power group called The Black Jacobins. In the late 1960s she shot and killed a Miami PD detective during a raid on her group’s headquarters and fled into exile in Cuba. She was placed on the FBI’s Most Wanted list and categorised an ‘urban terrorist’*.
(This is actually rooted in fact. Fidel Castro gave asylum to over 90 US fugitives in the 1970s and 1980s. Many of them are still living in Cuba to this day, in comparative freedom, because there is no extradition treaty with the US – or much else, come to think of it. The rollcall includes several former Black Panthers, fraudsters, hijackers and copkillers. Castro was particularly sympathetic to the Panthers because of shared ideology, and also because his most ardent supporters – to this day - are black Cubans.)
It was never my intention to write a trilogy. Things just turned out that way, as they sometimes do. When I started my first book, Mr Clarinet, in 2003, my only aim was to get it published. I hadn’t thought beyond that, and I hadn’t considered a sequel. So the books that followed – King of Swords (2007) and Voodoo Eyes (2011) – continued and expanded a narrative arc I hadn’t even contemplated when I stumbled on that opening line for my first book in January 2003. The books were accidents that became design.
Although the trilogy follows certain conventions – protagonists and antagonists return, they have a common base (Miami), and they all start at the time of a US Presidential election - it also ignores as many as I could get away with.
Like I said, I never intended to write an actual trilogy. Instead I’ve written a trio of standalones that happen to have returning characters. So you don’t have to read one book to understand another. And if you’ve followed the story thus far, the characters you meet anew will be familiar, but not as you last remembered them.
Each book features Max Mingus in a different decade – his thirties (King of Swords), forties (Mr Clarinet) and fifties (Voodoo Eyes). He’s the same person, but time and experience have changed him – and not necessarily for the better. In his thirties he was a Miami cop, by his mid-forties he was an ex-con and a widower, and when you meet him in Voodoo Eyes, he’s a bitter old man at 58. His youth is a memory. He’s still living and working in Miami, but it’s not the place he remembered and once loved. It’s a city growing younger by the day. The world has left him behind. He’s used up. Getting by.
The books also differ, one from the other, stylistically. Mr Clarinet is a linear, missing persons story set predominantly in Haiti. King of Swords is a multi-layered, multi-perspective police procedural with an occult twist, set in Miami in the early 1980s.
Voodoo Eyes is a book of two distinct halves, or two short novels wrapped in one. The book is set in Miami and Cuba in 2008. Each half of the book reflects its respective environment.
The first (Miami) part begins on the eve of the historic Obama election. The pace is fast, almost frenetic. This is literally the way modern Miami is - like it’s running on its own clock, with four to five hours missing and the hands moving six beats too fast. Everyone is in a hurry to be four or five places at once.
For all its chintzy glitz and glamour, Miami’s can be a dark and very sleazy place – if you look and go where you really shouldn’t. Very few people are actually from Miami. They’re from somewhere else, sometimes with different faces, sometimes on their third or fourth aliases. Miami is LA without the film business, Vegas without the casinos, Washington without the politics, New York without the intellect. It’s a city without a soul. And therefore no conscience. In short, it’s a kind of purgatory. And Max Mingus has been living there most of his life.
When Voodoo Eyes moves to Cuba, the pace changes accordingly. This, again, is a reflection of the environment.
Things take time in Cuba. There are only 60,000 cars in a country of eleven million people. Most are either old Soviet-era Ladas and Trabants, or those iconic vintage American jalopies dating back to Cuba’s pre-Castro era. The latter look great, but run slow.
Secondly, there’s none of the hurry, the sense of urgency about the people you find anywhere in the West. Cuba is – theoretically – a socialist country, everything run, owned and operated by the state. Everyone is – on paper at least – supposedly equal, give or take. So there’s not much competition between individuals.
There’s also a change of tone to match the shift in pace. In Miami, Mingus is a bitter old man in excelsis. In Cuba, he feels oddly liberated. He understands the place. He can almost relate to it – not ideologically, of course, but on a more direct level. The country hasn’t moved on much since 1959. It’s very much stuck in its past, still fighting the Cold War, long after communism has collapsed. And he even has a few familiar points of reference, childhood memories – arcane Americana rolling through the streets. Cuba reinvigorates him. He’s back doing what he does best – real detective work, looking for someone. By the end of the book, he’s quietly fallen in love with the country, even though the coffee’s shit, the government’s repressive, and the whole place is teetering on the verge of collapse – literally, economically, ideologically.
Now, I’m big on location, that’s my thing, my shhhhtick. I write about places I’ve been to, places I know, places I’ve set foot in. It’s not about accuracy with me, but atmosphere. After all, I’m not writing guidebooks, I’m writing fiction.
My wife and I went to Cuba in April/May 2008 for about three weeks. I didn’t do any reading up about the country before we went. I left all that until afterwards, because I didn’t want to go there with too many preconceptions. I wanted to see the place first and get to know it a little, so I could ground my research in actual experience.
We were based in Havana, but travelled the length and breadth of the country, west to east and in between. It’s a fascinating, beguiling country, and the people, for the most part, are truly exceptional – heroic, spirited and quietly defiant. They’re paranoid too. Paranoid about the state, paranoid about the US, paranoid about foreigners who ask them too many questions.
Cuba is a dictatorship, a police state, a prison island. We felt the state’s watchful eye, every day. We used to get up early in the morning to walk around Havana as the sun was coming up. We stuck out like sore thumbs – especially me with my camera, notebook and the tape recorder I always carry on trips to record the sound of the streets. We were followed around by the not-so-secret police. They tailed us at a sedate pace. They photographed and filmed us. Shortly before we left, we found that our hotel room had been bugged.
Prostitution is also rife – especially in Havana. It’s a sex tourist’s paradise. I lost count of the amount of foreign middle-aged men with eight-month pregnant paunches, who’d paired off with Cuban women barely out of their teens. I even talked to one of these creeps, and tried hard not to vomit when he told me he’d be locked up in England for the things he did quite freely in Cuba.
That is a direct consequence of the archaic, pointless, hypocritical – and, above all, failed - US embargo. The object of it was to bring down the Castro regime. That was in 1962. It’s now 2014, close to fifty years later, and they’re still very much there. In fact, calling it a mere ‘embargo’ is underselling the policy. It’s a blockade. The US makes it very difficult for anyone to trade with Cuba. The government doesn’t suffer, but the people do.
Oddly enough, a quarter of the tourists we met were American. They were there illegally, of course. They’d come in via Mexico, Canada, Europe, any Caribbean island. I met some very interesting people – the 70 something woman who’d been coming to Cuba every year since 1953, the three generations of former US marines, who were exploring what President Bush Jnr called “The Outpost of Tyranny” for themselves. They couldn’t work out why the hell America was still making a fuss about a country which poses absolutely no threat to it whatsoever. And they’d voted for Bush – twice.
The inspiration for Vanetta Brown was Joanne Chesimard – aka Assata Shakur, former Black Panther and godmother to the late great Tupac Shakur (2Pac). In 1977 she was imprisoned for the murder of New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster. In 1979 she broke out of prison and fled to Cuba, where she was granted political asylum in 1984. She currently lives and works in Havana, under the protection of the Castro regime.
As fate would have it, in 2013, two years after Voodoo Eyes came out, Chesimard became the first woman to be placed on the FBI’s Top 10 Most Wanted Terrorists list, with a $2 million bounty on her head. A strange case of fact imitating fiction, or do I have a fan in the FBI?
In France Voodoo Eyes (published as Cuba Libre, and with a terrific cover too) was shortlisted for the 65th Grand Prix de Litterature Policière.
The working title for Voodoo Eyes was 90 Miles.