Too often, the tension in a mystery flows from the same source as in a horror movie: As the character walks alone toward the empty, sinister house at night (of course), the audience collectively wrings its hands and groans, "Don't go in there." One can't help but wish that she or he were endowed with a little more common sense. Carry a flashlight, call for backup--something, for God's sake.
Fortunately, Havana Twist offers an antidote to that cliche in Willa Jansson, a no-nonsense Santa Cruz lawyer whose good judgement is matched only by her wry sense of humor--though sometimes neither is enough to keep her out of trouble. And this time, it's her own mother who has put her there.
When Jansson's political-activist mom doesn't return from Cuba with her group of "Jewish mothers of politics, ready to chicken-soup the whole third world," Willa must travel to the Communist island in search of her "Superlefty" mother. Jansson keeps a low profile as she searches Havana's dilapidated neighborhoods, trusting few with the fact of her mother's disappearance--and with good reason. The city's ubiquitous hotel room bugs, vanishing informants, and tight-lipped locals create a shifty atmosphere in which the unspoken can be as revealing as the spoken.
While smartly pursuing her mother's whereabouts and trying to stay out of jail, Willa manages to find a little time for a romance of sorts, although she's not unaware of the irony in her attraction to the police detective who was once almost fired because of her mother's police protest.
Matera adeptly adds unforeseen twists and turns to the plot, though she leaves it up to the reader to ponder which clues are bona fide and which are dead-ends. Matera has a knack for characterization and dialogue, and her contrast between Cuba's bleak economy, Mexico City's gaudy commercialism, and the U.S.'s comparative wealth adds a little sociopolitical weight to the story. Smart, sensible Willa Jansson is a pleasure to accompany on her search for that grey-haired brigadista she calls Mom. --Kris Law