By Paul Goldstein
Winning the annual Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction in 2013, following prior winners John Grisham and Michael Connelly, confers honor enough to warrant recommending Paul Goldstein's Havana Requiem. Three other attributes support this recommendation.
1) Michael Seeley, successful litigator in his Manhattan law firm before his life fell apart, is now sober, respected by his partners, winning again, and challenged by international copyright for his client Hector Reynoso and other aging composers, Havana musicians who continue to be denied millions of dollars of expropriated copyrights to the jazz of Havana's clubs in the 1940s and 50s. In the spirit of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, Seeley risks reputation, job, and life in travelling illegally to Cuba to obtain necessary signatures of these Cuban composers, signatures necessary to reclaim the rights before the expiration date for challenge. What he finds and how he challenges the odds--from short imprisonment, murder, client conflict, State Department politics and intrigue, and both gangster and high-society greed--offer insight into the world of contemporary lawyers.
2) Havana Requiem concerns more than the legal thriller of Seeley's adventures: First is the setting of Havana, from Jose Marti Airport, to Seeley's hotel, the Nacional, to Havana's slums, home of the poor, the dark, and the aging musicians where "no hope" lives. But they all have the glory and history of Old Cuba--the music. "This is the music the slaves brought with them from Africa five hundred years ago. It is how our antepasados--our ancestors --explain to us who we are." It also makes the reader pause: This is the music of the darker population that now outnumbers the whiter in Cuba, a threat to the regime. "Music makes people dream." Performing this music in public is dangerous. Why? The Cuban musicians explain: "Only a Cuban would understand." But readers can understand--and appreciate--Goldstein's descriptions of characters, politics, and places.
3) Goldstein excels in choosing copyright issues for Havana Requiem. Lillick Professor of Law at Stanford University, his books include treatises, casebooks, and nonfiction about intellectual property, both national and international. Seeley's arguments for his Cuban composers' rights to this valuable music and his current American industrial espionage case against two Chinese researchers are worth a read on their merits. These argumentative details occur with Seeley's partners at the firm's meetings, on the squash courts, in Seeley's prison cell in Cuba, and in Goldstein's exposition. Here Goldstein explains Seeley's student work with his Harvard mentor who argued the lead cases for Russian dissident writers, smuggling their writings to the West and then seeing the Russian government claim ownership, file copyrights, and try to halt publication. These cases contain the precedent--and now strategy--for Seeley in convincing his high-society defendants to drop their copyright claims.
Even if the two previous Seeley legal thrillers remain on our reading list, this protagonist becomes a real human by the third page of Havana Requiem. Goldstein said he thinks Seeley "embodies not only Atticus' integrity, but also his unvarnished nobility." He got it right! Much about life--the beautiful and the ugly--awaits the reader through the 305 pages, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
C. D. Rogers, Miami, is a member of The Florida Bar.