Miami's a marvelous city, full of magic and mayhem and mystery. That's why we live here. That's also why John Lantigua bases his wily Willie Cuesta stories here. And it's much of the reason why they're so damn compelling. Of course Lantigua's teaming talent have something to do with things too. Niteside got with the award-winning wordslinger on the eve of his landing On Hallowed Ground.
Who's Willie Cuesta and where did he come from? Willie Cuesta is a Cuban-American and a former member of the Miami Police Intelligence Unit. On the force he specialized in tracking down foreign criminals in Miami, including political terrorists. In other words, he's a private investigator who is an expert on international crime rings and also knows his way around foreign political turmoil. He's muy preparado as we say in Spanish -- very prepared.
What's he get into in On Hallowed Ground? He gets into a kidnapping case involving a very affluent Colombian family on Key Biscayne. The Key sits in Biscayne Bay at the end of a causeway seven miles long and that makes it very popular with wealthy folks from Colombia, which is one of the kidnapping capitals of the world. There's only one way in and one way out of the Key, and cops could hypothetically block the causeway before the bad guys get away with a hostage. The Estrada family is afraid kidnappers are casing them out and call in Willie. The kidnappers do strike, but instead of grabbing an Estrada they snatch Catalina Cordero, the beautiful but penniless new girlfriend of Jose Estrada. The questions begin: Should they ransom her or not? Is she involved with the kidnappers? Is she really pregnant with an Estrada heir as she claims? Who kidnapped her? Lefty guerrillas? Drug cartel interests? Ordinary goons out for a payday? Willie tracks them all down, including a former Colombian cocaine cartel boss named Raymundo "The Rat" Ramirez and his albino girlfriend known as Blanca Nieves --Snow White. What he finds is that in the Colombian underworld there are no degrees of separation.
This time Willie's working for Colombians; last time it was Argentinians. What's with the enclaves? All suspense writers have turf. Chandler had L.A. Parker had Boston. Hillerman, the Indian reservations of the Southwest. Paretsky has Chicago. In Miami, a few of us have had to divide up the turf and mine is the Latino community. In particular, I'm looking for those who came here running for their lives from Latin America and the Caribbean during decades of turmoil there. They often end up living around each other and those parts of town not only crawl with the ghosts of the interesting back stories these people bring with them, they also begin to resemble the abandoned homelands. The sound of Cuban music spilling out onto a sidewalk. The smell of Argentinean steak sizzling on a grill. Or the surprising sound of Colombians playing a very strange game called tejo. (You'll have to read the book for that one.)
Could his stories only happen here? Is there anywhere else? I thought there was only Miami and then the ocean.
If Willie was some kind a superhero, who would he most resemble? Years ago, when I was looking for a last name to pin on Willie, I remembered an analogy I once read: modern day fictional detectives are like the old knights errant of King Arthur's day, always out to save maidens in distress and take on other necessary but dangerous "quests." Bingo. Willie Cuesta. Willie is a knight errant, and also a descendant of Robin Hood, always out to avenge injustice. But compared to Robin or Sir Galahad, he dances much better salsa and merengue.