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Book Review 

by JOHN GROOMS & r & & r & Havana Nocturne & r & by T.J. English & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & W & lt;/span & e must be in a golden age of popular history writing, considering that some of the most engaging books of the past decade have been true tales we needed to know: The Devil and the White City by Erik Larson, Black Hawk Down by Mark Bowden and many others. Now you can add another to the list: Havana Nocturne by T.J. English.

Today, not many Americans know much about Cuba other than Castro and cigars. The nearly 50-year-old U.S. trade blockade has kept Cuba -- only 90 miles from Florida, and once the most lavish tourist hotspot in the Caribbean -- nearly invisible.

Those pre-Castro days of the late 1940s and the '50s were the era when the Mafia ran the most successful string of big-buck casinos, posh hotels and spectacular nightclubs ever seen in this hemisphere -- and paid Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista nearly $10 million (in today's money) per week to ensure that their good thing was "protected." It's a wild story, and T.J. English brings it to life in a big, widescreen way. Havana Nocturne is filled with true stories of the mob, gambling, sex, political corruption, music, murder and revolution that fill the nearly 400 pages to bursting.

If the success of a phenomenon as large as Havana in the '50s can be attributed to just one person, that would be crime boss and visionary financier Meyer Lansky. In addition to documenting the ups and downs of Lansky and Batista, English interweaves the story of Fidel Castro's revolutionaries, determined to end decades of harsh repression and Cuban subservience to Yankee dollars.

The mob paid little attention to Cuba's political uprising -- that's what they thought they were paying Batista to do -- and were shocked when their empire came crashing down on them as Castro entered Havana on New Year's Day 1959. They had had a rowdy, riotous ride -- Lansky's dream come true -- and they scurried out of Cuba, wealthy beyond their wildest dreams. It's a classic postwar American story, and it was about time for someone to write the definitive book about it.

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