Originally published in 1961 under a pseudonym, Lawrence Block’s Killing Castro is a genuine curiosity: a very of-its-time pulp novel in which five disparate Americans accept a contract on the Cuban leader, who at the time was one of the U.S.’s biggest boogeymen.
The quintet ranges in type from a professional hitman to an animalistic thug unable to keep it in his pants to an idealistic geezer dying of cancer who sees this assignment as his last chance to do something significant. It’s not giving away too much to note that events in Killing Castro don’t exactly follow real world history (one reason, one suspects, that the book remained buried for close to fifty years until Hard Case Crime chose to revive it in 2009), but who cares? Even at this stage in his career, Block was a leanly exciting crime writer, and Killing Castro — if nowhere near the level of his later Matthew Scudder books — is a quick and engagingly surly read.
The novel follows our five-some as they scatter into two pairs and a solo to set up their traps. Interspersed between each chapter, Block provides a brief history of Fidel’s rise to power, occasionally comparing the Cuban dictator to the equally corruptible men financing his assassination. These potentially didactic interludes prove more involving than you’d initially suspect, though the pulpy meat of the book remains Block’s sharply brutal insights into his five quasi-heroes, the scariest of whom proves to be the sexually aggressive muscleman Garth. If the universe of Killing Castro ultimately turns out to be just a Cold War alt world dream, to a Baby Boomer who can still remember the Cuban Missile Crisis, it’s almost as enjoyable as the playground Tarantino erected for his Inglourious Basterds.