Recently I caught up with award winning Ottawa author Peggy Blair of 2012’s The Beggar’s Opera and the newly- published The Poisoned Pawn (Penguin, Canada), the second installment of the series on the criminal investigations of her intrepid Cuban police detective, Inspector Ricardo Ramirez. These sleuthing adventures are juxtaposed against the travails of Ottawa policeman, Mike Ellis, who finds himself in a heap of trouble during a Havana vacation with his soon- to- be- divorced wife.
The Beggar’s Opera was shortlisted for the 2010 Crime Writers Association (UK), Debut Dagger, and in 2012 won CBC Bookie for Best Mystery/Thriller and the Giller Prize Readers Choice.
AJT: You’re a former Canadian Crown prosecutor who has now turned her hand to writing crime fiction. What inspired you to do your first novel set in Havana?
PB: I was a Crown prosecutor and criminal defense lawyer in Alberta way back in the 1980s. I turned to Aboriginal law when I moved to Ottawa twenty years ago. I had just finished a stint as an adjudicator in the Indian residential schools process, hearing claims of sexual and physical abuse involving children and I was unemployed and more than a little burned out. My daughter came home from McGill one semester and asked me what I was going to do next. I remember the words popping out of my mouth that I was going to write a novel, set in Cuba. I think I was as surprised as she was, but we had both been to Havana together and it made perfect sense. She often says she thinks that I didn’t pick Cuba; it picked me.
AJT: You must have very good legal contacts in Cuba to have been able to navigate yourself through their criminal system and their police investigative techniques. Do you?
AJT: I feel your first novel, The Beggar’s Opera, should be required reading for anyone planning to get into any sort of mischief in Cuba. I suspect it will scare them into being on their best behaviour while visiting the island considering the potential judicial quagmire that could confront them. Since writing the novels, have you heard of any scary real life cases where visitors have become seriously entwined in the Cuban legal system?
PB: Right after I wrote The Beggar’s Opera, I heard of three Italians who were jailed for drugging, raping and killing a young street beggar, which is, of course, the plot of my book. The child was a little older and female. There is also a reference in The Beggar’s Opera to a Canadian oil worker who was charged with sexually assaulting a minor after his young Cuban girlfriend got mad at him. He is serving a very long jail sentence in terrible conditions. That story is true.
PB: Caridad Cruz, a Cuban singer, sang at my book launch in Ottawa. She read the The Beggar’s Opera and told me she thought it was a beautiful book. I have heard from a few people who’ve spent a lot of time in Cuba or are married to Cubans who said they found it pretty accurate. I think because it’s fiction, it can be “true” in a way that sometimes non-fiction can’t.
AJT: Are you excited about the release of The Beggar’s Opera in the USA? Any plans to have them translated into French?
PB: It hit the US market on February 26, and I’m happy to say that it’s already on the Bestseller List in Michigan. But until it’s bought by a French language publisher, it won’t be translated, and so far, we haven’t had a sale either in France or to a Quebec publisher, although the non-English rights are up for sale.
AJT: Have you had any enquiries from the film world? The Beggar’s Opera would make a great film, I think.
PB: We’ve been approached; I’ve asked my agents to hold off until we see how things go in the US. Fingers crossed.
AJT: Now that you have completed the trilogy (Blair has a third book in the series still to be published) do you think you will continue to write about Cuba or are you moving on to other locales?
PB: Readers seem to want me to stay in Cuba, so that’s where the series will focus for the foreseeable future. Stay tuned!
A.J. Twist is a Montreal based photographer and writer.