Synopsis (from Goodreads):
In 1942, at the height of World War II, the famous writer Ernest Hemingway sought permission from the U.S. government to operate a spy ring out of his house in the Cuban countryside. This much is true…
It is the summer of ’42, and FBI agent Joe Lucas has come to Cuba at the behest of the Director to keep an eye on Ernest Hemingway, who has recklessly decided to play spy in the Caribbean. Lucas has been instructed to somehow gain the great writer’s trust and friendship, but all the agent’s cool intellect and training has left him unprepared to withstand the human whirlwind known as “Papa.”
Hemingway has assembled a spy ring that he calls the “Crook Factory”–including an American millionaire, a twelve-year-old Cuban orphan, a Spanish jai alai champion, a priest, and a fisherman, among others–to play a dangerous game of amateur espionage. Then, against all odds, Hemingway uncovers a critical piece of intelligence, and the game turns deadly for himself, Lucas, and for untold innocents.
And it could very well have happened…
Cuba, Hemingway, spies, IIWW, Nazi Germans, Ian Fleming, Marlene Dietrich, Ingrid Bergman. I bet it would be enough to put these words into the blurb and plenty of people would buy this book anyway, even if it is a bit uncharacteristic for an author better known for his sci-fi stories.
I really liked it – the atmosphere of decadence during the last years of the reign of Battista, the whiffs of war and the end of a certain social order. Add to that deep understanding of the psyche of Hemingway and the narration which was able to suck me in completely and made everything, every premise, possible and viable. There were at least two unexpected plot twists and the intelligent main lead who, being so unlike James Bond, could have been his more human and complex template. Overall lovely.
I didn’t like two things.
One: the world build was sometimes almost painfully detailed. I felt I really didn’t have to know so many spying agencies, their acronyms, their most prominent members and how they evolved. I didn’t have to read descriptions of so many weapons. The story involves a tremendous amount of infighting: between Hoover’s FBI and other American and British intelligence agencies, between German Abwehra and Sicherheitdienst, between Canaris and Heydrich. Simmons spends way too many pages explaining how it all happens – and why.
Second: I wish the book gave more space to women, specifically one woman: Maria Marquez a.k.a Elsa Heider. She was kept in the shadows and disappeared too quickly (not adding anything else as it would be a major spoiler) and I minded a lot. Actually I wouldn’t say ‘no’ to her POV or even a whole new book.
Allegedly this story is in 95% true. It is also very well-written. Do read it – you won’t regret it. I recommend it wholeheartedly.