THIS POST CONTAINS NO SPOILERS!
A flawed, fallen hero seeking redemption, a sultry Cuban femme fatale, a corrupt cop, alternately suave and brutish, a mysterious disappearance, double-crosses, diplomatic intrigue, and the ultimate vindication of authors’ termination rights under Section 304(c)(4) of the Copyright Act—these are the things from which copyright lawyers’ dreams, and Paul Goldstein’s “legal thriller” Havana Requiem (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) , are made.
When we first meet Michael Seeley, a talented trial lawyer with weaknesses for gin and needy artists, he has recently returned to the very New York law firm, Boone, Bancroft & Meserve, that fired him several years earlier, for what we can gather were some rather supine derelictions of duty. He receives a visit from Hector Reynoso, a desiccated remnant of the Afro-Cuban jazz scene of the 1940s. Reynoso persuades Seeley to represent a group of his contemporaries—vernacular musicians so raw and authentic they dismiss the Buena Vista Social Club as “tourist music”—in reclaiming the copyrights they long ago assigned outright to American publishers. Seeley agrees to the engagement first, and asks questions much, much later.
Early chapters, set in the offices of Boone, Bancroft and its partners’ environs, provide some necessary exposition, but are notably spare of atmosphere and description, perhaps reflecting the soul-sapping milieu in which Seeley has voluntarily placed himself. But when Seeley arrives in Cuba to search out Reynoso’s compatriots , Goldstein’s prose lights up with colors, sounds, and scents. And when Seeley meets his interpreter, Amaryll—a dancer whose loins seem to scratch out “The Girl from Ipanema” with every step—suffice it to say that the task of collecting signatures on engagement letters has never seemed so titillating.
In the noble tradition of film noir, Havana Requiem’s plot is not without some head-scratchers—not the least of which is WTF is Seeley doing in a cesspool like Boone, Bancroft in the first place—and its denouement, taking place in a law firm conference room rather than a courtroom, will no doubt leave some non-lawyers nonplussed. To his credit, Goldstein—Lillick Professor of Law at Stanford and author of a leading treatise on copyright law—manages to tell a story that lawyers will find plausible without burdening lay readers with any more legal detail than is necessary. Neat trick—here’s looking at you, kid.